It’s been a busy three weeks since mayor Keith Gaskin and the new Columbus city council was sworn into office. Some of the moves required immediate attention, such as hiring Neel-Schaffer Engineering to take over management of a major street paving project after the city’s contract with J5 Global expired in June and making some key hires, including Mark Alexander Jr. as the city’s interim chief operations officer.
But there are other matters being considered by the mayor and council whose impact will remain long after the paving project has ended and a permanent COO is installed.
A move to table a motion at Tuesday’s city council meeting is a promising sign for those who value defined operating procedures.
Chamber of Commerce head Wilson Beck approached the council for permission to use the city’s Regal Hall event space free of charge for two Pilot Partner events. Recognizing the city has no defined policy on when its event locations — Trotter Center and Regal Hall in particular — are offered at no charge, the council tabled the issue until a policy could be defined.
This move promises to address inconsistent, sometimes troubling, instances where decisions on waived fees appeared to be made arbitrarily in the absence of clear policies.
Use of the Trotter Center by various groups and individuals has been particularly confusing. Over the past four years, more than $100,000 in rental fees for the facility has been either waived or offered at a reduced price on what can only be described as an ad hoc basis. In the absence of a clear, written policy on this issue, the practice often gave the appearance of patronage, favoritism or cronyism.
We do not uniformly oppose these waived or discounted rates. In some cases, they represent a service to the community or a cooperation between the city and other governmental entities.
But without clear guidelines, there is a potential that the practice can undermine the primary purpose of the facility: to generate revenue and meet the needs of the tax-paying public. The facility does not belong to any city official but is instead entrusted to the mayor and council to serve the interests of the taxpayers.
Establishing a clear policy on the use of the facility will go a long way in building trust that these facilities are being managed fairly and wisely.
There are also murmurings of the city adopting a more comprehensive policy on how to respond to open records requests.
Mississippi’s Open Records laws permit citizens to access public records. These regulations allow public entities to optionally charge the requestor a reasonable fee to provide those records.
The Dispatch has a long history of aggressively using the Open Records laws in an attempt to hold government accountable. Among all the governmental entities that The Dispatch covers, we must admit that Columbus historically has been the most open with making records available quickly and at a reasonable or no charge.
This has changed over the past four years though.
Like free rent at the Trotter, we have seen the city act in a very arbitrary manner with regards to open records.
While we were investigating the city’s payments to J5 Global and Neel-Schaffer, for example, the city charged us over $1,000 to inspect payment records. In other instances, when records would show the city in a favorable light, they were often offered immediately at no charge.
The cost and timeliness of providing that information often seemed to be based on the nature of information requested and the city’s attitude toward the request.
Establishing set policies on such issues — and following those policies — will go a long way toward removing any clouds of suspicion that our city government is playing favorites or acting punitively.
We applaud the city council and the Gaskin administration for moving to establish policies and encourage them to continue. It bolsters the credibility of our city leaders while ensuring that all citizens have equal and fair access to city resources.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.