Latimer: “I’m tired of the fighting…
I don’t want any part of this.”After several months of relative calm, the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau returned to infighting and strife at their December 17 meeting. Board members clashed over adding items to the agenda and questioning the board attorney, and then listened to a typically bombastic appearance by District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, who refused funding for his Juneteenth festival. Jan Miller also appeared to ask for funding for a welcome sign on Highway 45.
The meeting was heavily attended by city and county leaders and community members, including Brooks, District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders, District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith, Mayor Robert Smith, Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor, Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens, Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box, Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem, Columbus Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong, George Irby and Kamal Karriem. [I may have left someone out. It was very crowded and easy to miss people. – Brian Jones]
Board Attorney Chris Latimer appeared to discuss his legal fees, but the discussion ended up being deferred due to concerns about attorney/client privilege.
The board asked Latimer to appear following questions at last month’s meeting about recent high legal bills.
Board members immediately locked horns over whether Latimer could speak without being on the agenda.
Whirllie Byrd asked if they would be able to question him.
“Well, that’s not on the agenda,” said President DeWitt Hicks. “If you have a motion then we can decide whether to add him.”
Bernard Buckhalter made the motion and was seconded by Byrd.
“I’m not sure if it’s required to vote on this,” said Nadia Dale.
“I think the issue, if I understand it, is that [Buckhalter] last time mentioned it and I think you made the comment that anyone can put anything on the agenda as long as it’s done timely,” Hicks said. “It was Buckhalter’s shot to call, as I saw it. If he wanted [Latimer] here he could put him on the agenda.”
“I may be wrong, but we have a privilege between client and attorney and I’m not sure it’s appropriate to discuss individual billing in open meeting,” said Harvey Myrick.
“I can address that,” Latimer said. “The advice I give the board is covered by attorney/client privilege. I can’t disclose the advice I give the board, but the board can disclose it if they have informed consent. You have to give informed consent to waive that privilege. The Mississippi Supreme Court case Hughes vs. Langston says that itemized legal bills are covered under attorney/client privilege, and they are also covered under the work product doctrine. The board has to waive that privilege. Be careful about that, because the privilege is there to allow the attorney to give objective, candid advice to the board.”
“As board members, we should know what we’re voting on, including the legal bills,” Byrd said. “Is that right?”
“I’ve told you this before, Ms. Byrd,” Latimer said. “You are privy to any document that you feel is necessary for you to reasonably perform your duties. If you want to see the legal bills, you can, and you have.”
“I have seen the legal bills, but I want to discuss the legal bills,” Byrd said. “But there’s always a reason not to discuss them.”
“If we want to discuss the legal bills, we can go into executive session to do that,” Buckhalter said.
“Can we partially waive attorney/client privilege?” Hicks asked.
“A waiver is a waiver,” Latimer said. “What you’re banking on is that that executive session would remain privileged. There is no absolute bar that something in executive session is going to remain privileged. I will say that I have had individual conversations about the bills with several board members. If you are interested in grant funding, let me say that I have had no dealings in any way with the grant guidelines, either writing them or reviewing them, or any discussions with board members or with Nancy Carpenter about grant guidelines. I haven’t been privy to any of that stuff. If that’s where you’re going, I had no activity in that whatsoever.”
“Several months ago we hired [Latimer] to do the job,” Myrick said. “I’m more concerned with who is asking him. I thought when we hired him he would only work through the executive director. I hope no individual board members are going to him.”
“You’re mistaken,” Buckhalter said. “The board hired him, and he answers to the board.”
The motion to add Latimer to the agenda failed 5-3, with Byrd, Buckhalter and Dale voting yes. [Leon Ellis was late, and had not yet arrived when the vote was taken. – Brian Jones] Buckhalter immediately took issue with the vote.
“It’s already in the minutes to put him on the agenda,” Buckhalter said. “The only way the board can deny putting something on the agenda if it was not done in a timely manner. The board has no authority to vote it down.” “That issue has been decided by this board,” Hicks said. “We’re going to move on.”
“No, sir,” Buckhalter said, interrupting him. “No, sir. The board voted several months ago to ask him.”
Buckhalter and Hicks began talking over one another unintelligibly until Hicks began shouting at him.
“You were asked if you wanted this on the agenda and you did not timely respond,” he hollered. “You did not respond by the time the minutes were provided.”
“Yes, I did, yes, I did,” Buckhalter shouted back.
“He requested in that meeting without a motion being made,” Dale said.[Buckhalter did, indeed, make that request. I do not remember whether a vote was taken, but I do remember him asking for Latimer to be put on the agenda for the next meeting. – Brian Jones]
Hicks finally relented and allowed Latimer to speak.
“The board is going to have to waive the privilege,” Latimer said. “You can’t waive the privilege unilaterally. The entity is the client.”
Byrd made a motion to waive the privilege, and Rissa Lawrence simultaneously made a motion not to waive it. Hicks recognized Lawrence’s motion, stating that she “had her hand up first.” Myrick seconded.
“It’s very important that we discuss this with the attorney because I have some issues,” Byrd said. “There needs to be some answers. I think we’re voting on something that…I think they’re unauthorized bills, really.”
“Hang on, hang on, hang on,” Latimer interrupted. “Let me say this. I’m tired of the fighting. I’ve done legal work for this board for six months and I’ve given you valid opinions on issues that needed to be cleaned up legally. I have presented to you in writing every time you asked for an opinion. If y’all are going to continue to fight and try to leverage me for the political fights on this board and some of the feuds that are going on between board members and the director…I don’t want any part of this. Hear that right now.”
“If the board members are not able to access the attorneys during the meetings, I think that’s why they are contacting him personally,” Dale said. “I think they don’t feel like they have the opportunity to question him.”
“I think we need to look at the minutes and see,” Hicks said. “There is a misunderstanding among some of us as to whether anybody can ask the attorney for an opinion. We need to review that.”
“There is no mistake about that,” Latimer said. “I have written another letter about that. Since the board is a public entity, I can only be authorized to do tasks through the executive director or through the board. I have never done any research or any tasks other than charged through those two ways. That’s the way it’s always going to be because that’s the way it is in public entity law.”
“The issue is laid to rest, then,” Hicks said.
Lawrence’s motion not to waive privilege passed. The motion passed 6-1, with Byrd voting no and Buckhalter abstaining.
Treasurer Bart Wise reported that city collections are still lower than anticipated.
“We budgeted about $129,000 a month in income from the city tax revenue,” Wise said. “That number is coming in way short. In November we came in almost $17,000 below where we budgeted. We need to start looking at some expense items and find out where we can make some adjustments there. Hopefully it will pick up some, but right now the trend is not looking favorable.”
Leon Ellis made a motion that the CVB oversee all contracts for entertainment and advertising at festivals they fund.
“That’s not on the agenda,” Hicks said. “I don’t like taking up something like this with no warning.”
“I would want to consult with the staff about this first,” Dale said. “We need to see if this amount of work is something they can take on. I don’t think we should do that impulsively.”
“I think that’s beyond the scope of this board,” Buckhalter said.
“If we did that, it would become our event, not their event,” Byrd said.
Ellis withdrew his motion.
The board then quickly went through the current batch of grant applications.
Artesia Days asked for $8,000, and the board unanimously approved the request.
Juneteenth asked for $15,000, and the board approved the request 5-4, with Wise, Lawrence, Ellis and Myrick voting no.
The grant committee recommended that the Memphis BBQ Network invitational event be given $9,000; Ellis made a motion to award it $15,000, but it died for lack of a second. The board then voted 8-0, to award $9,000, with Myrick abstaining.
The Crawford Cotton Boll Festival was given $6,500 on a unanimous vote, and the board tabled a recommendation to give Grillin’ on the River $8,000 after Wise questioned Myrick’s involvement with the event. Myrick had recused himself and left the room while the vote was taken, and was informed when he returned. [Mr. Myrick founded Grillin’ on the River. He withdrew the event from consideration for funding during FY12 after questions about his involvement with both the festival and the CVB. In April, he presented a letter to the board from the Mississippi Ethics Commission stating that the CVB could fund the event as long as he received no compensation from it personally. The letter did, however, say that he should recuse himself from any discussions or votes to avoid the appearance of impropriety. – Brian Jones] Finally, the board voted 5-3 to give the Townsend Blues Festival $8,000. Ellis, Lawrence and Wise voted no.
Highway 45 Sign
Jan Miller spoke on behalf of the Downtown Riverwalk Beautification Committee. The committee, which just put up a welcome sign on Highway 82, would like to place a similar one on Highway 45, near Columbus Air Force Base. Miller asked the CVB to provide $14,000 from a fund set aside for beautification at the Riverwalk and the downtown area.
“The sign on 82 is part one of a three-phase project,” Miller said. “Our intent is to continue the project. We want a matching sign on the north corridor of town near CAFB. The proposed sign is going to be funded by this committee as well as through the city and private donations. We ask that $14,000 of the $22,000 expense come from the contract we already have with y’all. We want to move forward as soon as possible.”
The CVB has a contract obligating $40,000 to the Riverwalk and the historic district.
“If you took funds from that $40,000 we would need an amendment to the contract between the city, the county and the CVB,” Hicks said.
“Is this going to hurt other downtown projects?” Ellis asked.
“No,” Miller said.
Buckhalter made a motion to amend the contract and pay the $14,000, and was seconded by Dale. The motion passed 7-1, with Lawrence voting no.
Leroy Brooks Throws a Fit
Brooks challenged the CVB’s new grant guidelines, claiming that they made his Juneteenth festival unworkable and that festival organizers had been given no opportunity to discuss changes to the funding mechanism.
The CVB changed their funding guidelines earlier this year. Rather than give up to $15,000 to every festival, grant applications were split into two categories: tourism and quality of life. A tourism event may be funded up to $15,000, but may only spend 25 percent on entertainment. A quality of life event isn’t eligible for as much money, but has no spending restrictions.
Brooks submitted two applications for Juneteenth this funding cycle, one as a quality of life event and one as a tourism event. He submitted differing budgets for each. The grant committee disregarded his quality of life request, instead recommending he be given $15,000. As reported above, that request was approved.
Monday night Brooks embarked on a lengthy tirade, beginning by rejecting the $15,000 in funding he had been awarded moments before.
“As always when I come before a board I have two speeches, one in my right pocket and one in my left,” he said. “The one in the right pocket is always good. Just watching from the rear, it doesn’t really matter. First let me thank the five of you that voted to fund Juneteenth. I will graciously say to you on behalf of Juneteenth we will not accept that grant. It is impossible…$15,000 is what it costs to do entertainment. [Packet readers will remember that Mr. Brooks pulled this same trick last year. The CVB originally voted to give him $9,400. Mr. Brooks turned it down, stating that he couldn’t put on a festival with that amount. The CVB capitulated and gave him $14,000, and Juneteenth proceeded as usual. – Brian Jones] We came to this board almost a year ago, along with other festivals, and we said to this board that before you implement any guidelines to please give us the opportunity to give some input. This board did not follow through with that. About a month ago the members of the festivals met with the director, and part of what we requested was to meet with the grant guidelines committee. That never happened. If you really want to facilitate these festivals, it seems you would ask those of us who do the festivals. I’ve been doing this festival for 28 years. I’ve always done my report properly. I’ve always turned in my documents.” [This is certainly one way of looking at things. That being said, Mr. Brooks’s reports have often been questioned for their obvious holes. In September board members asked about checks made out to cash with no explanation cited beyond “entertainment,” as well as the fact that profits from previous festivals seem to have disappeared. Balance sheets have shown profits each year, but the money never seems to make it to the next year’s event. Mr. Brooks claims that the money goes to fund the Next Generation Mini Farm, but then he also claims that that project is grant supported. Who knows where the money actually goes.
I also have to wonder why a festival that’s been in existence for nearly three decades still needs taxpayer support. If it’s such a beloved institution, shouldn’t there be sponsors lining up to participate? Why does Mr. Brooks’s pet project have to rely on public funds? – Brian Jones]
Brooks then called the CVB members who voted against funding Juneteenth racists, and compared them to those who tried to prevent James Meredith from attending Ole Miss.
“I sat here and watched four members of the board vote against it, and I wasn’t surprised,” Brooks said. “As I stood there in the back of the room, I was thinking about when I was nine years old and growing up in the southern part of Lowndes County. What was important about being nine years old is that it was 1962, and that is when James Meredith attempted to go to Ole Miss and people in this state and in this county went to Oxford like crazy people losing their minds. Even here there were calls for people to take their guns and stop people from going to Ole Miss. I call those people obstructionists, people who don’t have a vision, people who were living a lie. Fifty years later they elected a black homecoming queen and most of the football players are black. Along the way they have changed the image of Ole Miss. Somewhere in the state of Mississippi there are still those people who went up there 50 years ago trying to keep James Meredith from going to Ole Miss.
“For those of you that think by fighting Juneteenth you’ve done something great…your time is going to end on the board,” Brooks said. “The truth of the matter is that it really don’t matter. You’re not doing me an injustice. In a few days I will have completed 29 years on the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors. I’ve been locked up two or three times, I’ve been investigated by any agency possible. Guess what? I’m smiling. I’m saying to you all that sit on this board and your sole purpose is to fight Leroy Brooks, you’re wasting your time. You’re wasting your energy. I want you to know that if you want to ramble, I’ll ramble, too.
“I came here tonight as an elected official to ask that the committee that put the guidelines together sit down and meet with us if you really want to have festivals,” Brooks said. “My question is you’ve got $230,000 for advertising. What are you promoting? This is not a homogenous community where everybody’s the same. We’ve got black folks, white folks, Hispanics. Matter of fact, this city is majority African-American. Those of you who think you’re carrying out some political agenda…it was not always this way. There were previous boards who worked with us. It was only after the Link did not get all the money they wanted and people at the Link got mad and they said they were going to harpoon all the black elected officials…and the mayor’s here, and some others…and we got together and said we want to do the right thing. We got together and we supported a new private/local bill and they added to that language special events, and we did the right thing because we were concerned about the community. Now some of you on the board think you’re not answerable to anybody, but you are. This money belongs to the people, yet you want to come and create a bad environment for this city.
“Now some of you don’t know me well,” Brooks said. “I don’t make threats. I just do what I’m going to do. I’m not going to sit back and allow a few of you to be biased and bigotry [sic] and leave out a whole group of people because of some political agenda. I brought all these newspapers clippings and all these things that have been played out in the paper…you talk about these festivals like we’re doing something wrong. [I, as well as the Dispatch and the Real Story, have written before about the ridiculousness of politicians coming before their own appointees and asking for money, but Monday night was no different. As Brooks indulged in his usual spectacle, Mayor Robert Smith (who sponsors the Unity Picnic, which is funded by the CVB), District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith and Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor (who organize the Townsend Blues Festival, which is funded by the CVB) and Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem (who organizes the Seventh Avenue Heritage Festival, also funded by the CVB) stood by in a show of force. The effect was rather like something out of a bad gangster movie: “Nice board. Be a shame if something happened to it. Now about that festival funding…” The money, as Mr. Brooks said, does indeed belong to the people. As such, I think it’s a mistake for the CVB to fund politicians’ pet projects. – Brian Jones] [Jeff Smith] is not doing anything wrong, [Kabir Karriem] is not doing anything wrong. We are going by guidelines you put in place. You made all kinds of disparaging remarks. This is the one that gets me: ‘Leroy is always bringing black festival organizers to haggle over this. He is drawing some racial lines.’ That’s CVB member Mark Castleberry. My name is not Leroy to you. My name is either Supervisor Brooks—”
“Mr. Chairman, is there a time limit?” Myrick asked, interrupting Brooks.
“No,” Hicks said.
Brooks immediately turned on Myrick.
“Now Mr. Myrick, I’ve known you for how many years?” Brooks said. “You put on a festival…why you want to cut me off? Some of the same board members that you go out to eat with are the same people that don’t want you to have a dime, either. Let me have my say.”
“I don’t like the idea of you coming up here and saying you’re a supervisor and you appoint this board—”
“I never said I appointed this board!” Brooks yelled.
“Let’s have order,” Hicks said, cutting Brooks off. “We’re going to do this in a civil manner. Mr. Brooks and I have been friends for a long time. I had the honor of working as city attorney for 24 years and as city judge for 17 years. As city judge the Justice Department investigated Columbus to see if there was a segregated court system and we passed with flying colors. I’d like to get back to that situation, where we’ve not black and white but we’re citizens of Columbus. Anything I can do to restore good relations in this town, I want to do it. I think a lot of people in Columbus want to do it because we’ve had enough of this racial strife.”
“I appreciate your wisdom and friendship,” Brooks said. “One of the reasons we put you on the board was because we knew you would be fair. I did not come here to argue. It’s a sad situation when two or three people fail to understand you work for the people. This is not your money. You can’t pick and choose based on your personal agenda. I will be the first to step forward and reconcile with anyone as long as there’s some sense of fairness. There are people on this board who don’t have that sense. I had hoped tonight that this would be the beginning of the end with the issues with festivals, but it’s not going to go away. You’re not going to have millions and millions and not share. I had hoped we could compromise and sit down in the back room away from the press and figure out how to facilitate these festivals. [Which would be illegal. Not that that bothers Mr. Brooks. – Brian Jones]
“You said at the beginning that you came to meet with me and all the festival organizers were here,” Carpenter said. “The truth is it was not all the festival organizers, you just invited those you wanted to come. It was the black organizers primarily and I want the minutes to reflect that.”
“The real issue was that we had asked to meet with the committee and it did not happen,” Brooks said. “You’re the one that labeled them black festivals. They’re festivals for everybody. You read the Packet and all this…’Leroy brings black festival organizers and drawing a racial line.’ It has nothing to do with race, it has to do with representing people that are not represented.”
Hicks asked the grant committee to reconvene and meet with the festival organizers again.
“My concern is what standard are we to use?” Castleberry asked. “Is the standard tourism or the good of the community? Do we adhere to the best practice of our industry? What is our goal? What is our purpose?”
“Did we not schedule two days for all festival organizers to come and ask questions?” Myrick asked.
“I was never approached by Mr. Brooks or any others,” Castleberry said.
“The night they had the informational meeting, several of us were there and when we asked for clarification on some issues he said it was not a meeting for discussion, it was only for information,” Brooks said. “It was not an open dialog. It would make sense to me that…last year [Jeff Smith] got $12,000. He’s in an category now where he can only get $8,000. He’s $4,000 in the hole. You say you’ll give $15,000 to Juneteenth, but only $3,750 can be used for entertainment. We told you over and over and over that the litmus test for these festivals is entertainment. If we can sit down and tweak some guidelines…it’s like giving me a car with no gas in it. Here’s $15,000 but you can’t use it for what you need it for. Well, then I can’t use it.
“Some of you all have been more accessible to discuss,” Brooks said. “On a number of opportunities I’ve talked to Ms. Byrd, Mr. Buckhalter, Mr. Hicks, even Mr. Myrick about my concerns. I was not hostile. Whether we like it or not, we are all joined at the hip. If a tornado comes, it’s not going to come to the black community or the white community, it’s going to come to the community. Five years from now those of you who voted against this will be able to say you stopped Juneteenth. That’ll be the only thing you’re remembered for. Mississippi has produced a lot of obstructionists. The election is over, it’s time to put this behind us. Here we all fighting about some money simply because you don’t like some of the people…some of you have never had a conversation with me. All I’m saying is we are willing to meet and come and sit down. We don’t want to argue. We are leaders whether you accept it or not. You gave the black festivals, if you want to put it that way, a little over $54,000 last year. We still had to go out and raise $48,000. I’m asking you all again…I’ve never threatened anyone about appointing anyone. If I don’t think you need to be here, I’ll just not vote for you.”
“I’m just asking this board to meet with us with an open mind,” Brooks said. “We can sit down and find a way to work through this. If we can’t, we’ll go to another level. That level will be whatever it has to be.”
“I have a copy of the letter from the Alliance of Festival Organizers that you submitted to us on December 19, 2011,” Lawrence said. “We had passed a set of guidelines that were not acceptable to you and your group. You made several requests in this document, and the committee went back to work and met several different times over a year’s time. We thought we did the right thing and we tried to make everyone happy. We added language for entertainment, we tried our best to please everyone and here it is again, a year later, you’re not happy the guidelines.”
“Ms. Lawrence, if you had just simply allowed us to come and sit down with you we could have had this conversation,” Brooks said. “Prior to you being on this board, I didn’t know you, hadn’t seen you, never heard of you—”
“I taught your son,” Lawrence said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
“The point is that almost every time something has come up with Juneteenth, you have voted against it,” Brooks said. “I know you and [District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders] are real good friends—”
“Let’s not make this personal,” Hicks said, interrupting. “I hope and pray we will work on this calmly and objectively.”
Hicks asked the grant committee to meet with Brooks, but no meeting time was set.
In other business, Buckhalter made a motion that Latimer attend all future meetings. He was seconded by Dale, but his motion was defeated 6-3, with Buckhalter, Byrd and Dale voting yes.
[As I’ve said before, I think it’s a splendid idea for the attorney to be present at all the meetings. I guess that just makes too much sense. – Brian Jones] 0