Tuesday was a bad, bad day for the citizens of Columbus and Starkville.
The difference is, only the people of Starkville seemed to care.
Tuesday evening, the Columbus City Council held its regular meeting at the Municipal Complex while the Starkville Board of Aldermen convened at City Hall. In both cases, a single agenda item dominated the discussion, proposals that were veiled in secrecy and were very likely to do harm to the city if allowed to proceed.
In both cases, the cities’ governing bodies pushed through ill-conceived, politically-motivated measures that signal an intent to circumvent the residents’ rightful role in conducting city business.
In Columbus, it is clear after Tuesday’s meeting that the mayor and council can act as they please with no fear of answering to the public for its actions.
The council met in a half-empty board room, with roughly 40 citizens showing up to hear the dog-and-pony show.
In Starkville, there were probably that many people standing in the hallway outside the board room for the aldermen’s meeting after 100 or so people had squeezed into the room, filling all the chairs and standing along the walls, two to three people deep in some places.
The aldermen have broken faith with the people. In Starkville, that matters.
In Columbus? Hey, anything goes. Patronage, fiscal irresponsibility and indifference all have seats at the table now. The public has spoken: It doesn’t care.
At issue was a proposal passed by the council at its July 2 meeting, to create a new position in the city for project manager and hire J5 Broaddus, operated by mayor Robert Smith’s campaign manager, Jabari Edwards, without opening the job to a bid process. The proposal passed 4-2 with little discussion and no public input.
Tuesday, the council took up the matter of compensation. J5 Broaddus will be paid $90,000 annually plus unspecified costs for travel, lodging, meals and incidental expenses. In addition, the firm will receive six percent of the expenses for each project it manages. J5 Broaddus will work with the project management and planning firm Broaddus & Associates in a joint operation since there appears to be enough extra money in the city’s coffers to go around.
As it was with the July 2 decision, the vote went along racial lines. The four black councilmen — Gene Taylor, Joseph Mickens, Marty Turner and Kabir Karriem — asked no questions during the discussion period and voted for the proposal. White council members Bill Gavin and Charlie Box voted no after each peppering Broaddus & Associates representative Robyn Eastman with questions about why it was in the city’s best interests to create the position. Those questions were met with vague assurances that the new position would ultimately save the city money because of the firm’s oversight role in seeing that projects are done within budget and completed on time.
It’s a claim worthy of scrutiny. It’s like being dissatisfied with the work of the kid who mows your lawn and deciding the solution is to hire someone to watch the kid mow the lawn. The obvious solution — obvious, that is, to everyone on the planet who isn’t in city government — is to hire a different kid to mow the lawn.
The council’s decision seems to be a veiled accusation that the city’s engineering firm, Neel-Schaffer, could not be trusted to manage costs ethically or effectively. At the July 2 meeting, the board chose not to extend the contract with Neel-Schaffer.
Since neither J5 Broaddus nor Broaddus & Associates are engineering firms, the creation of the project manager strongly suggests that the city has only succeeded only in adding a new layer of bureaucracy, and at no small cost.
After the meeting, Karriem said the city normally spends $150,000 a year on engineering and speculated that there might not even be a need for an engineer. Say what? Think of it: A multi-million dollar project built without the services of an engineering firm.
After the meeting, Karriem said, ” I don’t think it’s time to be confrontational about anything.”
After all, it’s only taxpayer money we’re talking about here.
In Starkville, the issue was the board of aldermen’s decision on July 2 to fire its chief administrative officer, Lynn Spruill. The move was vetoed by the mayor and about 160 citizens gathered Tuesday to see if the board would vote to override the veto.
A half hour before the meeting, a group of about 50 residents met on the steps of city hall, where District 19 Rep. Tyrone Ellis, among others, pleaded with the council to put its obvious political motivations aside and return Spruill to the position she has filled in exemplary fashion for the past eight years.
Inside, 22 citizens spoke during the citizens comment portion of the meeting, 19 of which pleaded with the council to retain Spruill and peeling the paint off the wall in their criticism of the board for refusing to inform the public of its reasons for firing her.
Those pleas were met, for the most part, with stony silence. Alderman Ben Carver, who made the motion to immediately fire Spruill during the July 2 meeting, proved stubbornly evasive in explaining his reasons, saying only that he had prayed over the matter and had made up his mind years earlier.
“This is what the Lord wants me to do,” Carver explained.
That settles it, then. If you can’t trust God and Ben Carver, who can you trust?
The same five aldermen who voted to fire Spruill on July 2 — Roy A. Perkins, Henry Vaughn, David A. Little, Lisa Wynn and Ben Carver (aka God’s Personal Spokesman) voted to override the veto. Spruill is out and for no good reason, or at least, no reason the aldermen would not be ashamed to share.
It seems likely those aldermen will eventually come to regret it. Tuesday’s meeting showed that the citizens are aroused as they have rarely been.
Sadly, in Columbus, the council and mayor aren’t likely to face that sort of public accountability, if attendance at Tuesday’s council meeting is any indication.
Yes, it was a bad day for the citizens of Columbus and Starkville.
In Columbus, it’s safe to say the worst is yet to come.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.