Cannon questions special meeting
At their March 13 meeting the West Point Board of Selectmen discussed an additional one-cent tourism tax, redistricting and a local music program and questioned the appropriateness of a Feb. 17 special meeting.
Mayor Scott Ross asked the board to approve a resolution that would ask the legislature to add an additional one-cent tax to prepared food and beverages and hotel and motel rooms. The money would be funneled to the Growth Alliance.
There is already a one-cent tax that raises money for the sportsplex.
The board approved the addition of another cent several years ago, but the request failed to make it out of the legislature.
“Most of the communities surrounding us have a two-cent tax,” Ross said. “Several years ago this board made a request to the legislature to allow us to go from one cent to two cents to help us with tourism-related projects, whether it’s the Howlin’ Wolf or the arts council.”
“How soon do we need to pass this?” asked Ward 2 Selectman Homer Cannon. “The other question I have is…when I found out about this I wanted to talk to our attorney about this because I’ve always understood that the 1 percent tax now is being taken out for the sports complex. I wanted to find out how this will be applied.”
“The 1 percent for the sports complex would not change,” said Growth Alliance board member Milton Sundbeck. “That will stay there.”
“So this 1 percent you’re asking for will specifically be designated for the Growth Alliance?” Cannon asked.
“That’s correct,” Sundbeck said. “One percent will go to the sports complex and the other 1 percent will go to the Growth Alliance.”
“How soon does this need to be acted upon?” Cannon asked.
“I was hoping you’d do it tonight,” Sundbeck said.
“The reason we’re in a rush is because the legislature is only in session for another month and a half,” Ross said. “We’re going to lose our window of opportunity if we don’t act now. Our representative will not introduce the bill unless the local board supports it. If we put this off until the April meeting, there may not be time to get all that done.”
“We’d have to have a public hearing first, right?” asked Ward 5 Selectman Jasper Pittman.
“The last few years the state has required a public referendum for increases of this type,” Ross said. “I don’t know what mood the legislature is in this year. When the 1% for the sportsplex was put on, they did not require a referendum. When [Governor Haley Barbour] was in office, they did. I don’t know that the legislature will require now. All we can do is ask for it.”
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to check with the attorney,” Cannon said. “I have no problem with the 1 percent. I have no problem with it. I just want to make sure that everything is…you know…”
“In anticipation of that I talked to [City Attorney Orlando Richmond] about an hour ago,” Ross said. “He agrees that we can go ahead and pass this. This is a resolution requesting the legislature to act. We don’t have the authority to act on this on our own.”
“Once this is approved, who sets the guidelines on how the money can be used?” asked Ward 1 Selectman Rod Bobo.
“That’s still a little bit up in the air,” Ross said. “Obviously the city board has to approve any funding resolution. We can let the Growth Alliance do some of it, or the city board can choose to specify. What we don’t have time to argue about is whether you want 10 percent to go to this or 15 percent to go to that. Everybody is going to have a different opinion on what their priorities are.”
Cannon suggested tabling the request so that board members could talk to Richmond before acting.
“We can hold a special meeting next week to act on this,” he said, “once we get all the facts.”
“I’m giving you assurance that I talked to him just a short while ago and there is no problem,” Ross said. “This board will still have an opportunity later on to designate what percent goes to what. It should generate around $200,000 per year, and would put us on the same plane as Columbus and Starkville and most other cities.”
“It was approved last time, but the people in Jackson didn’t do their due diligence,” Pittman said.
“There was a miscommunication and they thought we were going to from 1 percent to 3 percent,” Ross said.
Ross again urged the board to vote now.
“We can specify how it’s going to be spent later. If we don’t ask, we won’t have any money to argue over. You will have the final say-so on how the money is spent if we ever get it,” Ross said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
The board approved the resolution unanimously.
“I reserve the right to go back and change my vote after I talk to [Richmond],” Cannon said after the vote was taken.
Ross asked the board to think about redistricting.
“City elections are next year,” Ross said. “We really, really need to have redistricting finished prior to qualifying, preferably. I don’t think your wards are likely to change much at all. I hope you’ll choose an entity to do this tonight.”
“I know we got proposals from Mississippi State and several others, and I know Selectman Cannon had some strong feelings about a company out of Jackson, Southern Echo,” Ward 3 Selectman Charles Collins said.
“I don’t know that we’ve heard anything from them,” Ross said.
“Yes, we did,” Cannon said. “They sent us information, and we have already sent them maps and everything. They’re just waiting on us.”
Collins made a motion to use Southern Echo.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Ross said. “What I don’t want is for you to get to a point where your election results are challenged. We need to do all this stuff right. We’ve got the Golden Triangle Planning and Development District, who did the county’s redistricting. We’ve got the Stennis Institute at Mississippi State. Southern Echo is another option, but what are they going to charge?”
“They are well known,” Cannon said.
“What is their fee,” Ross said. “We can get that from them,” Cannon said.
“We’ve got a fee from Stennis,” Ross said. “We’ve got a fee from the PDD.”
“I can have you their fee tomorrow,” Cannon said.
Cannon withdrew his motion and the issue was tabled until more information was available.
“I’m pretty sure all the fees were about the same,” Collins said. “I remember they were all around $4,000.”
[According to their web site, Southern Echo was “founded in 1989 to build the capacity of African American communities to form a network of new, accountable grassroots community organizations, on an inter-generational model. Southern Echo provided training, technical and legal assistance. The primary goal was to empower the community to impact the formation and implementation of public policy.” – Brian Jones]
Dr. Johnnie Rasberry asked the board to support a music workshop organized by his non-profit, Southern Atlantic Corporation. [Dr. Rasberry made a similar plea to the board of supervisors earlier this month. – Brian Jones]
“I want to form a partnership between Southern Atlantic and the city to address the problems some of our sixth graders are having getting in the band,” Rasberry said. “We’re having a series of workshops where young people learn to play instruments, and we would like to request donations. There are probably a lot of people whose children were in band and now those instruments are attics not being used.” Anyone interested in donating an instrument may call 662-494-7632.
Cannon questioned Ross about how and why a Feb. 17 special meeting was called. The minutes of both the Feb. 14 regular meeting and the Feb. 17 special meeting were removed from the consent agenda at Cannon’s request.
The meeting, which apparently addressed the appointment of a school board member, was called days after the board’s regular Feb. 14 session. At the regular meeting, Richmond advised both Ward 1 Selectman Rod Bobo and Ward 4 Selectman Keith McBrayer to recuse themselves from the discussion because both have close relatives – Bobo’s spouse and McBrayer’s sister-in-law – who are employees of the school district. Richmond stated that the ethics commission had enumerated a number of relationships that it considered suspect, and both Bobo and McBrayer fell under those definitions. The board, after a far-ranging discussion, voted to table the issue until an ethics commission ruling could be sought; Richmond stated that he suspected “Mr. Bobo is out and Mr. McBrayer is likely out.”
Ross then called a special meeting for 5 p.m. Feb. 17 to take the matter up again.
Cannon questioned why the meeting was held so quickly, and how the decision was reached to have it Friday evening.
“I was concerned as to the timing of the meeting,” Cannon said. “We had all week long…when we said we were going to come back I thought we would do it at a time that was considerate for everybody instead of all of a sudden you’ve got a meeting called and nobody had any idea that this meeting was coming. Or at least I didn’t, I’m not speaking for anybody else. If I had known it was coming I would not have been out of town.”
“I came to believe just through various others that the board had reached a consensus and was ready to make a decision,” Ross said. “We call special meetings from time to time and there’s never any guarantee that you’ll get a quorum. When it was called we weren’t certain that we’d have a quorum.”
“When we’ve called special meetings it was because it needed to be called at that specific time,” Cannon said. “It didn’t have to be called that Friday. It could have been called Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or whenever. It was not an emergency. I’m just puzzled as to why it was called at such a time.”
“The fact is that it was called and there was a quorum,” Ross said. “Four out of five selectmen participated.” [Mr. Cannon participated via teleconference. – Brian Jones]
“I received a call around 1 or 1:30 from the deputy clerk,” Collins said.
“I got my call around 2 o’clock,” Cannon said. “Mr. Mayor, you said it was the consensus, that everybody wanted to…” “I don’t know that you could say there was unanimity on anything,” Ross said. “I was, I came to believe that there was a consensus from the majority of the board to move forward. That’s why I called the meeting. I wouldn’t call a meeting if I thought that most of you didn’t want to do it. [There were some chuckles in the audience at this. Many citizens in the audience were open amused by some of the mayor’s answers throughout his exchange with Mr. Cannon. – Brian Jones] My recollection is that [Town Clerk Lela Jack] was out of town at training that day, and I asked [Deputy Clerk Rita Mattix] to see if the…if we could have a meeting, to poll the board members. If two said yes and three said no we would have done it another time. We met the requirements, we posted the notice on the bulletin board. Four out of five selectmen participated, everybody had the opportunity to participate. We tried to get all five of you notified. It’s our job to notify you. If a selectman chooses not to participate based on an ethics opinion or because they don’t want to participate, that’s their call. It’s my job to provide notice, not to make your individual decisions on whether to participate or not.”
Ross tried to steer the discussion back to approving the minutes.
“The question here is whether or not the minutes accurately reflect the meeting,” he said. “You can’t go back and change the vote just because you don’t like the outcome of the vote. The question is whether the minutes accurately reflect what happened at the meeting.”
“This is a hot topic in the community, and we need to go ahead and address it now,” Collins said. [A chorus of “uh-huh” and “that’s right” erupted from the crowd. – Brian Jones] John Bennett, who was present in the audience, asked to be recognized to speak. Although the mayor was clearly reluctant to do so, and noted that it was “not proper”, he allowed Bennett to speak. [While the board was discussing whether Mr. Bennett should be allowed to speak, Mr. Ross had to bang his gavel to cut through the babble of voices from the audience. – Brian Jones] “If there is no objection to board members, I will allow Mr. Bennett to ask a question if that will clarify this…whatever issue that we have,” Ross said.
“It’s not a secret that I’m in the process of preparing an ethics complaint against the board,” Bennett said. “The reason why I’m concerned about it is that everybody seems to be ignoring the fact that our legislature in Jackson is doing some funny things. One of the funny things they are doing is they are trying to set up these charter schools. That school board is going to take important funds and rob money from this district because the money follows the student. You are all going to sit there and allow this to happen. Your counselor told you that Mr. McBrayer and Mr. Bobo had to be recused. Then you call this special meeting. The mayor and two board members can call a special meeting. You didn’t need Mr. McBrayer [at the meeting], you needed his vote for who you wanted to get on the board.”
With that, the board approved the Feb. 17 minutes on a 4-1 vote. Cannon voted no.
[I did not know anything about this meeting until I heard it discussed here. The Packet, needless to say, was not given any notice that a meeting had been called; however, the Mississippi open meetings laws do not require notice to the media, only that notice be posted at the meeting site within one hour of the meeting being called. (Clearly this law leaves a lot to be desired, as few citizens swing by city hall on an hourly basis to check the bulletin board for meeting notices, but that’s an argument for another day.) What concerns me is this: The school board appointment is of great local interest. The city attorney, in a public meeting three days prior to this special meeting, advised two of the five selectmen that their participation is ethically questionable, and so the issue was tabled. Then the mayor, apparently acting on his own, calls a special meeting, set after business hours on the Friday that begins a three-day weekend, specifically to deal with this very issue. How in the world could this be seen as anything other than questionable? The only way this could pass the smell test is if it were a genuine, bona fide emergency; this clearly was not, as Mr. Cannon states above. Mr. Cannon – and the citizens of West Point – are entirely correct to question this. – Brian Jones]
In other business, the board:
Approved an application for up to a $10 million loan from the State Revolving Fund. The money will be used to update the waste water plant purchased from Sara Lee. The city is under a mandate from the Department of Environmental Quality to come into compliance with new regulations. Ross opined that the city would only need around $7 million; he pointed out that other communities in similar situations have paid nearly $40 million for similar facilities.
Voted to proceed with an energy efficiency contract with Siemans. The project will replace the city’s old meters with new, electronic automatic-read meters. The state must approve the project before it can go forward.
Bobo stated that complaints levied at the West Point Police Department were found to be groundless. Last month Cedric Sykes, a former WPPD officer, complained that his family was being harassed and singled out by officers in West Point. The board instructed Chief Tim Brinkley to investigate the matter and submit a written report; Bobo stated that Brinkley found no evidence of harassment.