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City Beat — CVB Shake Down; More Money More Problems

Jeff Clark - logoBY JEFF CLARK

As of Tuesday afternoon, Harvey Myrick is no longer a board member of the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Board of Directors. The same men who appointed Myrick in 2011, Columbus Mayor Robert Smith and District 1 Supervisor and Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders, removed Myrick from the board over what Sanders called “a conflict of interest” over Myrick’s involvement with Grilling on the River, a barbecue competition founded by Myrick. After taking a break in 2012 while Myrick waited on an ethics opinion regarding his involvement with the festival and the CVB, which funded the event in the amount of $8,000, it came back this year.
According to Sanders, he and Smith were approached by CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter, board chairman Dewitt Hicks and CVB board attorney Chris Hemphill about Myrick a few weeks before the recent municipal election. Sanders said they met at Smith’s office and discussed Myrick’s involvement with Grilling on The River.
The backstory on this is the CVB board initially voted not to fund Grilling on the River at the suggestion of board treasurer Bart Wise because Myrick was still listed as the event’s principal agent with the Secretary of State’s Office. Myrick assured the board members he was no longer the event’s chairperson, and was now only a volunteer. Myrick even had the Lowndes Community Foundation act as the fiduciary, or “check writer,” for the event.
Myrick, who received an opinion from the Mississippi Ethics Commission, told me Wednesday morning he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong and he did indeed step down as the event’s ring leader.
While Myrick’s intent may have been to step down as the organizer, his actions show differently.
In full disclosure, Grilling on the River advertised with The Packet and we did some in-kind sponsorship for the event. Although the checks for the ads were written by the Lowndes Community Foundation, the billing address for the ads was Myrick and it was Myrick who proofread and approved all of the ads. I also received an email from Myrick after the event, a letter to the editor, claiming the event a huge success and thanking all of the sponsors.
To quote Sanders, “Volunteers aren’t in charge of the checks. If you are in charge of the checks, you are more than a volunteer.”
Sanders also said Myrick was given the chance to resign, but was ultimately fired.
Myrick told me Wednesday morning he was not going to pursue any legal recourse and that he didn’t want to be portrayed as the bad guy in the incident.
Rules are rules and I admire Sanders and Smith for enforcing them. Myrick’s biggest misstep was probably telling them to “go to hell,” but he is passionate about his barbecue contest.
Myrick’s absence will have a huge impact on the dynamics of the contentious CVB board. He was the swing vote — he was appointed independently and he voted independently. We will now wait impatiently as Sanders and Smith pick Myrick’s heir apparent.
—–
I was told that Columbus Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong had been taking a straw poll among the city’s councilmen to see who will support a council pay raise. Yes, look for this to be an agenda item at Tuesday’s council meeting. Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor is allegedly the person pushing for the raise, but I could not confirm this as Taylor did not return my calls Wednesday evening.
According to Armstrong, council members make $17,500 a year and are paid bi-monthly. Council members also receive Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance and some other fringe benefits including a “state retirement” plan.
“The city pays for the insurance — the council members pay $14 copay,” said Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell. They also are part of what is called the Public Employment Retirement System of Mississippi. Each member contributes 9.52 percent and the city contributes 14.26 percent. But that is going to increase to 15.75 percent starting July 1. We also pay for training sessions, especially for new councilmen.”
The reported number attached to the pay increase is $22,000, and the council will have to vote on it before the “new” council is sworn in July 1.
It would be easy to blast the council for this under the “they only meet twice a month” umbrella, but there is far more to it than that. Although it is a part time job, it does come with full time responsibilities. But I know what former chief financial officer Mike Bernsen told me when he was leaving his job with the city — “The city is going to have to raise taxes — soon.” If that statement came from someone else, I would disregard it as alarmist talk. But coming from Bernsen, it probably has a lot of truth to it.
With the city’s budget process due to start soon, surely this money could be spent somewhere else — mainly in the police department. I was there when the council and Mayor Robert Smith created the Fiscal Year 13 budget and I know what was left on the table — especially in regards to the Columbus Police Department.
Newly-elected Ward 4 Councilman Marty Turner hasn’t even attended his first council meeting — why does he deserve a raise? Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem and Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box are the only council members certified by the Mississippi Municipal League — maybe they deserve the raise?
It seems an odd move for Taylor, who had no opposition in the last election, to spearhead a pay increase. It will also be interesting to see if outgoing Ward 4 Councilman Fred Stewart, who — wait for it — will probably get a plaque and a year’s supply of Turtle Wax for his service, votes for a pay raise for Turner.
The vote for the pay increase could have some bigger implications as the council will vote for its vice mayor at the July 2 meeting. Allegedly, if Taylor gets support for the pay increase, he will be expected to pay it forward when it comes time for the vice mayor vote. This is where the real power struggle begins. So far, current Vice Mayor and Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin, Karriem and Turner’s names are all in the hat. Expect the race to be narrowed down to Karriem and Gavin on July 2 and Karriem to wear the proverbial vice mayor’s hat coming out of the Municipal Complex. It would be easy to dismiss the vice mayor position had a former vice mayor not done so well for himself. Then-Ward 1 Councilman Robert Smith was the city’s vice mayor during the Jeffrey Rupp administration. But look at him now.

Jeff Clark is the Managing Editor of The Columbus Packet. He can be reached at
jeff.clark@test.columbuspacket.com/packet.

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