It was a year of a new administration and old worries, a pandemic that seems to have no end, tragedy and triumphs. The year 2021 began with access to a COVID vaccine, a change in the Columbus mayor’s office after a hard-fought election and a less-than-smooth start for the new administration. Crime continues to weigh heavily on our minds, but there were causes for celebration, too, as the city observed not one, but two, bicentennials.
Here’s a look at what made news in 2021:
Vaccines arrive, but COVID numbers see little improvement
The new year arrived and so did wide-scale COVID-19 vaccination. As the vaccines became more available in early January and the age restrictions expanded, vaccination sites shifted from county health departments to larger “drive-thru” venues. On Jan. 12, Gov. Tate Reeves announced the opening of 17 drive-thru vaccination centers, including the Fairview Baptist Church in Columbus.
Demand for vaccinations was high initially but had waned by summer. The arrival of the Delta variant along with growing “vaccine hesitancy” and relaxed COVID protocols at the state, county and city level, did little to significantly reduce the number of COVID cases and deaths.
Columbus and Lowndes County ended their mask-wearing mandates in late April.
As of Wednesday, despite the access to vaccines that weren’t available the prior year, there were more COVID-19 cases and deaths in Lowndes County in 2021 (7,346 cases, 102 deaths) than in 2020 (4,458 cases, 92 deaths). The Mississippi State Department of Health reports that the vaccination rate in the county is 44 percent, a figure that matches the state average. Mississippi’s vaccination rate is the fifth lowest in the nation.
Gaskin edges Smith in tight mayoral contest
For the first time in 15 years, the city of Columbus has a new mayor in Keith Gaskin.
Vice Mayor Robert Smith won a special election to fill the unexpired term of mayor Jeffrey Rupp to become the first Black mayor in the city’s history in 2006. But questions about the mayor’s health and a financial scandal that ultimately sent former city Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle to prison and put the city’s budget in red ink for a time, combined to doom Smith’s bid for a fourth full term.
Gaskin, the executive director of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science Foundation, entered the race as an independent, running on a campaign of fiscal responsibility and attracting new business to the city.
Smith, meanwhile, spent the early months of the year fighting an undisclosed illness that kept him out of the office for eight weeks, beginning in February. He returned to the office on a limited basis in late April. Even so, the race proved close, too close to call before the outstanding mail-in absentee voters were added. Ultimately, Gaskin won by 24 votes. Also joining the new administration after the municipal elections was Rusty Greene, who won the Ward 3 council race over a pair of opponents to replace incumbent Charlie Box — who did not run for re-election — and Jacqueline DiCicco, who beat Ward 6 incumbent Bill Gavin in the May Republican primary and had no opponent in the general election.
Columbus celebrates two bicentennials
The year marked the 200th anniversary of the founding of the city of Columbus, but that bicentennial — which included the opening of a time capsule buried in 1972 at Leigh Mall and a bicentennial-themed Christmas Parade featuring the Budweiser Clydesdales — wasn’t the only such celebration in the city.
In February at Franklin Academy, local and state officials gathered with alumni, including several of the school’s first Black students, to celebrate the opening of the school, the first publicly-funded school in the state, in 1821.
Deadly plane crashes
The year brought tragic reminders that while plane crashes are infrequent, they are most often tragic.
On Feb. 19, a Columbus Air Force Base student pilot and his instructor died during a flight training crash near Montgomery, Alabama. Renshi Uesaki, 25, a student pilot from Japan, and instructor pilot Scot Ames, 24, of New Pekin, Indiana, died when their T-38C Talon aircraft crashed near the approach runway at Dannelly Field in Alabama. In October, an Air Force report cited pilot error as the cause of the crash.
On Aug. 4, a local businessman and his grandson died in a plane crash in Oktibbeha County. Gary Dedeaux, 65, of West Point, the owner of Gary’s Pawn and Gun stores in West Point and Columbus, died along with his grandson, Luke Reed, 13, when Dedeaux’s vintage T-6 warbird airplane crashed in a wooded area off Camps Airport Road. Dedeaux, a one-term West Point selectman, was a veteran pilot and avid supporter of Columbus Air Force Base. The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the cause of the crash.
Gun violence has community searching for answers
While violent crime has increased everywhere, gun violence took its toll on Columbus’ and Lowndes County’s psyche, prompting a series of meetings, along with a report of a city crime task force, in the waning months of the year.
In November, a Crime Prevention Task Force assembled in January at the request of Mayor Robert Smith released its recommendations. The task force, led by county supervisor Leroy Brooks, was composed of four subcommittees, each charged with looking at crime from a specific point of view — law enforcement enhancement, education, community revitalization and recreation/youth. The committee laid out its recommendations at the Nov. 3 city council meeting, calling for more community support and more tech support for the city’s police department.
Since then, there have been other town hall meetings called to address crime, including a Dec. 20 meeting hosted by the Columbus Municipal School District to discuss how gun violence is impacting the city’s school children.
On Tuesday, Brooks and a group of law enforcement officers and Black local leaders held a press conference at the county courthouse making a direct appeal to the city’s younger population to “put down your guns.”
City scrambles to put together budget after $1.5 million error
In September, the city together had put together its planned Fiscal Year 2022 budget, an important first step for a new city administration that had campaigned on restoring the city’s fiscal credibility. So, when a Dispatch reporter pointed out a discrepancy that led city officials to discover a clerical error that miscalculated the city budget by $1.5 million, the city had to scramble to revise the budget to meet the state-mandate deadline. What the city thought would be a $550,000 surplus had become a $1 million deficit.
With just 48 hours to reconcile the budget, the city was forced to cut employee pay raises along with equipment for the city’s police and fire departments to balance the planned budget, among other things.
The error occurred when the city’s budget failed to account for $1.5 million in costs associated with the city’s contract for solid waste management.
“This is obviously not what we had hoped for,” Mayor Keith Gaskin said upon learning of the error. “What can I say? It’s alarming. It’s concerning. It’s unacceptable.”
Mayor, council butt heads over forensic audit
As part of his campaign for mayor, Keith Gaskin recommended the city hire a forensic auditor to examine city finances, an issue that emerged when the city fell into a budget deficit, part of which was determined to be due to the embezzlement by the former CFO Milton Rawle, who was subsequently convicted.
But after two appearances by potential auditors, the mayor’s plans hit a wall during an Oct. 5 city council meeting. The council voted down a proposal to pursue the financial audit. A week later, Gaskin vetoed the council decision, but in a contentious special-call meeting two days later, the council overrode the mayor’s veto by the same 4-2 vote. Council members who voted against the audit said they could not justify its expense since there was no guarantee it would return money to the city coffers, but there was also an indication that the veto was designed to deliver a message to Gaskin, who they claim disclosed his plans to the public before consulting the council.
The mayor said he was wary of violating Open Meetings Act regulations by discussing policy decisions in private conversations. Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene said holding work sessions that would allow the mayor and council to hash out policy matters while not taking official action could be a means of satisfying the concerns of both the mayor and council. The city has held several such work sessions since then and the atmosphere at council meetings has been noticeably less confrontational.
Guilty verdict in New Hope murder trial
When District Attorney Scott Colom reviewed the investigative reports that led to a guilty plea from the wife of a New Hope man murdered in his home in 2015, he couldn’t escape the feeling that woman was not the only person who should be held responsible for the crime.
In 2019, Christina Martinez, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of her husband, Manuel Vasquez. Although Martinez’s mother, Lydia Martinez, was initially arrested on a murder charge, she was eventually charged only with accessory after the fact.
Colom said the investigation uncovered more evidence against Lydia Martinez than her daughter — including confessions to a paramedic and a sheriff’s deputy on the day of an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
At Colom’s insistence, Lydia Martinez was charged with first-degree murder. The high-profile case was heard before an Oktibbeha County jury in March.
Martinez’ defense claimed Lydia Martinez was not involved in the planning or murder of her son-in-law but participated in the cover-up of the crime — which including burning the victim’s body and destroying and discarding evidence — only because she feared her daughter. Colom argued that Lydia Martinez and her daughter were both involved in the planning, commission and cover-up, Christina Martinez was among those who testified as a prosecution witness.
After a five-day trial and 3 1/2 hours of deliberation, the jury found Lydia Martinez, 61, guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence.
“It’s an old story,” Colom said. “Two people do a crime and when it all starts to fall apart, they begin turning on each other, pointing fingers at each other. That’s what happened in this case.”
In April, Christina Martinez was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
City, county move carefully on ARPA fund plans
Between them, the city of Columbus and Lowndes County will have almost $17 million dollars in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, but neither the city council nor board of supervisors have gone beyond the talking phase of how to use the funds, which are required to be committed to projects by the end of 2026.
Lowndes County supervisors held a work session on Nov. 1 to discuss possible ways to spend the funds, but haven’t made any commitments. It’s likely the supervisors will direct funds over to a variety of projects including HVAC upgrades at county facilities, improvements at the county jail, support infrastructure improvements at the county’s industrial park, money to support Community Counseling Services and partnering with the city for improvements at Propst Park.
The city is also considering possible uses for its $5.6 million in ARPA funds. During its Nov. 23 meeting, council members supported the idea of devoting significant funds to improve drainage issues in the city. In September, the council earmarked $1.3 million for employee stipends, but delayed the decision pending further guidance on which employees would be eligible under ARPA guidelines.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]