Hill Resigns as Town Clerk
At their April 2 meeting, the Caledonia Board of Aldermen heard a conflict over the Easter Egg Hunt and an update on the water rate increase. They also discussed letters received from a second-grade class asking for a water park, established a farmer’s market and accepted a report about a bill sent to Mayor George Gerhart after the Marshal’s Department unexpectedly had to escort a trailer he was moving. Finally, the board went into executive session to discuss the sudden resignation of Interim Town Clerk Krista Hill.
The meeting was so heavily attended by members of the public that it had to be moved into the community center. [Many of those in the crowd were there in support of Michelle Cox and wore t-shirts emblazoned with the logo of Ms. Cox’s store, New 2 U Consignment. More on that below. – Brian Jones] Mayor George Gerhart was not present, so Vice Mayor Bill Darnell chaired the meeting.
Water Park Considered
After the usual routine business was handled at the opening of the meeting, Darnell announced that the town had received about 14 letters from Mrs. McElrath’s second-grade class at Caledonia Elementary School. The students asked the board to consider building a water park.
The letter read, in part: “I would like to make a positive change in Caledonia…I would like the town to build a water park. The YMCA has a pool, but it sometimes is very crowded and not very safe. The water park would have many things to do for people of all ages. It would be an excellent way for the entire family to get exercise and stay healthy.”
“All I can say is Rissa Lawrence and Brenda Willis did an extensive report on this two or three years ago and it got laid on the table, I’m sure,” Darnell said. “There was a pretty good price tag on it, too, and we didn’t think we could afford it. We’ll take this under advisement and have the deputy clerk write them a letter.”
The board took no action.
Caledonia Aldermen Hear Egg Hunt Dispute
Michelle Cox spoke at length about conflicts surrounding the Easter Egg Hunt and Movies on the Mound.
“I am owner of New 2 U and my business puts on Movies on the Mound and the Egg Hunt,” she said. “We took over the Movies on the Mound four and half years ago when Rent-A-Space decided they no longer wanted to sponsor it, and we started doing the Egg Hunt three years ago. Normally I would be here giving numbers on how many kids came and how many attended, but we got rained out. I have a lot of mixed emotions about that.
“Very few people know of the firestorm I was dealing with last week,” she said. “The town very graciously allows us to use their facilities [Ola J. Pickett Park – Brian Jones] to hold this for the community. The first year my business purchased the eggs, and as the event has grown the costs have grown and I have asked the town to buy the eggs. Last year we had 7,000 eggs and 700 kids, but I had parents complain that their kid only got five eggs. I got a call from [Alderman Mike Savage], who is somewhat over the park, around March 14 or 15 that Carmen Sisson at the Commercial Dispatch had approached him after an alderman meeting and asked for more information about the egg hunt. He asked me to contact her. He sent me her contact information on March 18. I got a call from Rod Taylor on March 25 as I was driving back from Tupelo wanting to know where to put a bounce house. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said Susan Bell asked him to do it, and I told him this was the first I had heard of it. He also said she had asked him to do a banner for free face painting, and I told him that was new to me, too.
“I called [Savage] the first thing the next morning,” she said. “I told him about Rod’s call and asked him what else was going on that I didn’t know about at the event I was organizing and sponsoring. He said he didn’t want to bother me, and he didn’t want to be in the middle. I told him he should have told Rod and Susan to contact me if he didn’t want to be in the middle. When we hung up, I contacted [Sisson]. It was the most embarrassing and uncomfortable conversation I’ve had in a long time, because she acted like she didn’t know who I was or why I was calling. I gave her the information on the event, then I called [Savage] back. He said I’m sure she got everything she needed to know from Susan Bell, and I blew.”
“I don’t remember that,” Savage said.
“I had you on speaker and had another person listening,” Cox said.
“Okay,” Savage said. “I just don’t remember it.”
“I asked him why Susan Bell was speaking on behalf of an event I was organizing,” Cox said. “He said he understood that [Bell] had contacted [Sisson] about something else and the information was given in addition to that. I told [Savage] this was not a political forum. This was for children. It is understood within my family that [politics] is not what this is about. [Ms. Cox’s father is Bill Lawrence, who is running for mayor this year against Ms. Bell. – Brian Jones] My father is usually not even there unless I need help with something.”
Cox said she delivered the flier about the event to the Dispatch the next day.
“[Sisson] said it was already in the paper,” she said. “Some of the information that ran was correct, some was incorrect. It’s a good thing it was cancelled, because the times were wrong. It ran incorrectly Wednesday, Thursday and Friday even though I asked [Sisson] to correct it.” [In Ms. Sisson’s defense, this was the same week that she became ill and had to be hospitalized. She may not have been there to fix it. – Brian Jones] Incorrect information ended up in the Packet, as well.
“There’s a photo op in the Packet, and under it is added information about the egg hunt,” she said. “The some of it’s right, some of it’s wrong. The wrong information is wrong about other stuff than the Dispatch was. I contacted Susan Noland at the Packet. She put me in touch with reporter Brian Jones. I told him I didn’t have a problem with the Packet, that he didn’t have any way of knowing that [Bell] didn’t have the right to speak about the event. I asked him to forward the email to me. He said he can’t do that because there’s other information in the email, so he copied and pasted just the information about this event and sent it to me.”
Darnell interrupted, telling Cox that she had spoken for 10 minutes and was out of time. She quickly finished up her remarks and served Bell with a cease-and-desist letter.
“When we talked last week, I told you to blame me if you wanted to blame someone,” Savage said to Cox. “I still stand by that. I saw nothing wrong with what she was doing because it was adding to something for the kids. It’s all a plus for the park. I realize…this is my fault, and I told you that last week. The honorable thing to do is bow out, so I’m not going to mess with the egg hunt anymore. I realize what this is about.”
Bell asked to be allowed to speak.
“[Sisson] contacted me about the banners and the egg hunts,” Bell said. “She wanted to know if we were having any other activities at the egg hunt. I thought about it and asked [Savage] if we could face paint. I was not trying to interfere with anything, I just wanted to add something for the children. Don’t want to interfere with anything. I did go through [Savage] because he’s the person I’ve always gone through with anything at the park. All I can say is that I should have known this would be the reaction.”
Sisson, who was in the audience, said she was trying to write something positive.
“I just wanted to write something positive because we write so many negative ones about you guys,” Sisson said. “I would have asked anyone for information about the egg hunt. I was unaware of the politics between some of you guys and the egg hunt. We just wanted to do something nice for the town.”
The board took no action.
[For my part, I want to echo what Ms. Sisson said. Ms. Bell contacted me about putting a photo in the paper of the spring banners going up. During our conversation she mentioned the egg hunt was going on that weekend, and said she would send me the information about it when she sent in the photo of the banners. I put the egg hunt information under Ms. Bell’s photo on my own initiative because I thought more people would see it that way. I also put the same information in the Bulletin Board. It never occurred to me to question the political allegiances of those involved, although I was certainly aware that Ms. Cox is Mr. Lawrence’s daughter and that Ms. Bell is also a mayoral candidate. As Ms. Sisson said, we in the media report on a lot of bad things in Caledonia. This seemed like a great opportunity to write something positive. I regret any part I played in causing a ruckus. – Brian Jones] The Egg Hunt and Movie on the Mound has been rescheduled for this Saturday. The Flashlight Egg Hunt will begin with a hunt for three-year-olds and under at Field 4 at 7:30 p.m. and at Field 3 for four- to five-year-olds. Six- to seven-year-olds hunt at 8 p.m. at Field 5, and eight- to 10-year-olds at Field 1. The movie begins at 8:30 p.m. Admission to both events is free.
The Meeting Continues…
Darnell asked that the town set up a Farmer’s Market.
“We’ve had several people approach us about scheduling times at the Jimmy Hairston Pavilion to sell produce,” he said. “Maybe we could do a trial run from 7 a.m. until 11 a.m. starting in May.”
The board unanimously agreed to give it a try.
Water Superintendent Benny Coleman reported that the water rate increase is still in limbo.
“We’re still working on separating the water and sewer rates and stating exactly what the money will be used for,” Coleman said. “We hope in the next month or so we’ll get that done.”
“I think you ought to know that the newspapers actually did some good,” said Town Attorney Jeff Smith. “Two days after the meeting last month Public Service Commissioner Brendan Presley came to see me, and he said our request will be reviewed adequately.” [Last month Mr. Smith called the water rate ordeal “a bunch of crap” and opined that Mr. Presley was endangering the health and safety of the Caledonia Water Department’s customers. Mr. Smith, of course, also happens to be a state legislator and the chairman of Ways and Means. – Brian Jones]
During the Marshal’s Report, Marshal Ben Kilgore submitted a bill for $325 to Mayor George Gerhart. Kilgore said the bill was for “escort services” provided when the mayor moved a trailer. The bill was presented to the board for information purposes only.
[Apparently Mr. Gerhart sold a piece of property diagonally across the street from town hall. He had to remove a trailer located there, and did not make any allowance to direct traffic or to block the road beforehand. The Marshal’s Department purportedly heard about the planned removal as it was getting underway, and had to provide an impromptu escort service to get it moved safely.
[When Mr. Kilgore presented the bill to Mr. Gerhart, an angry confrontation ensued. The mayor is alleged to have told Mr. Kilgore to stick the bill “up his ***.” The brouhaha culminated in Mr. Gerhart calling 911 and attempting to get a sheriff’s deputy to come out to intervene. No deputy was dispatched. For more details on the fracas, see Ron Williams’s column in this issue. – Brian Jones]
The board went into a 55-minute executive session to discuss personnel issues and pending litigation. While behind closed doors they discussed the sudden resignation of Interim Town Clerk Krista Hill and applications for park director.
Hill took over as town clerk February 1 following the resignation of her grandmother, longtime Clerk Judy Whitcomb, who quit due to her poor health. Later that month Hill filed a sexual harassment complaint against Gerhart and William Darnell, at that time a candidate for alderman. She alleged that Darnell made obscene and sexual statements to her in the mayor’s hearing, and the mayor did nothing to correct the situation. Hill filed a complaint with the Marshal’s Office, but had taken no further legal action at the time; she said she wanted to wait and see how the board would respond before deciding how to proceed.
Hill reportedly resigned Monday after overhearing Gerhart make disparaging statements about her while on the phone with the mayor of another town.
Following the executive session, the board voted to hire Missy Duncan at $10 per hour to answer the phone at town hall until the new board comes in. [The town is already accepting applications for the town clerk’s position, but the actual hiring will not take place until the new board is sworn in. – Brian Jones] They also voted to hire Whitcomb to come in as needed. She will be paid $15.25 per hour for no more than 10 hours a week.
In other action:
• Election Commissioner Ken Byars asked that the board approve the ballot for the upcoming election, and that the commission be authorized to get them printed. Both requests were unanimously approved.
• Darnell introduced Christina Lemmerman, a senior at Caledonia High School, who will help establish a Mayor’s Youth Council in Caledonia. Darnell noted that Lemmerman had been involved with the youth council in Columbus, and that her experience would be invaluable.