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Natchez board continues closed-door meetings as complaints mount about secret sessions
from Staff Reports - NEWS
July 11, 2018 -

By John Mott Coffey

NATCHEZ, Miss. – Mayor Darryl Grennell and city aldermen closed the public out of discussions Tuesday concerning the purchase of the large parking lot on Broadway Street that was recently chained off.

City officials are interested in acquiring the lot on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. After years of being accessible to the public, the Callon family-owned property was recently closed off to keep vehicles from parking there. The Board of Aldermen in June approved getting an appraisal of how much the land is worth to buy. The lot was previously owned by the city but sold several years ago.

Few details are readily available to the public since the board and mayor have discussed the parking-lot issue in closed-door sessions. State law allows government boards to conduct meetings in secret to discuss various specified subjects, such as litigation and land transactions.

While state law does say “the formation and determination of public policy is public business and shall be conducted at open meetings,” Grennell and the six aldermen routinely take advantage of the various exemptions to this credo to close their meetings. Little public explanations are made to justify closing the meetings other than they deal with issues state law allows barring the public from hearing being discussed.

There are currently four complaints against the Natchez board pending with the Mississippi Ethics Commission, which will decide whether Grennell and Natchez aldermen have violated the open meetings law, according to Tom Hood, the commission’s executive director. The commission’s next meeting is Aug. 3.

The ethics complaints were stirred by the mayor and board closing meetings that led to their selection in May of the city’s new garbage collector: Arrow Disposal Service. This resulted in a $6.16-a-month rate increase on each Natchez household. The hike is due mainly to the fee for picking up recyclable trash.

With the board’s decision-making process being done mostly behind closed doors, the public was not privy to aldermen’s discussions of why Arrow was considered better than the other trash-collecting companies seeking the city contract.

There was also misinformation and lack of information for the public. For example, city officials in May initially cited the new garbage-collection charge as $18.45 a month per Natchez household. However, the actual amount turned out to be $19.90. There was also no public discussions by the board about what disruptions would be in store for Arrow’s pick-up schedule during holidays. No advance notice was provided to Natchez residents that last week’s Fourth of July holiday would put the collection of recyclables and general trash off track by a day.

Tuesday’s secret session of the board also covered up discussions about the city’s lawsuit against Titan Tire. The litigation is tied to the property Titan formally leased from the city. While Natchez owns the old tire-making plant, it was occupied by Titan, Armstrong and two other tire companies since the factory was publicly financed and constructed in 1939. Titan took over the plant in 1998 but shuttered it in 2001. The company continued to lease the vacant property from the city until last year. Titan removed factory equipment that belongs to the city -- a point of contention in the city's legal dispute with the Illinois-based company.

The city’s lawsuit against Titan is currently pending in the Adams County Circuit Court. The board is trying to force Titan to assume ownership of the property, which is a white elephant heaping the city with financial, legal and environmental burdens.

The board in recent weeks has also closed its meetings to discuss the transfer of the Natchez Visitor Reception Center to the National Park Service. The U.S. Congress earlier this year authorized the NPS to take the city-owned facility. The Board of Aldermen has struggled in recent years to fund maintenance and repairs for the building, which houses the city and state’s tourist welcome center along with offices for the Natchez National Historical Park.

City attorney Bob Latham said aldermen have approved a transfer proposal to negotiate with the NPS that keeps part of the parking lot for the city to retain. The board plans to donate the visitors center to the NPS. State law does allow government boards to close their meetings to discuss the “prospective purchase, sale or leasing of lands,” but no mention is made about donations. Since the board has closed the public out of its discussions, it’s uncertain if the city will be leasing part of the city-owned building from the NPS. | © 2014 | All Rights Reserved
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