By CARL SMITH
First, officials from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks padlocked their facilities in April after declining to renew its Oktibbeha County Lake recreational lease.
Now, Supervisor Marvell Howard said the county school board has locked up the lake’s primary entrance and posted trespassing notices to keep the public out due to a lack of liability insurance.
“I sat there Saturday and probably counted 20 vehicles with boats that had to turn around because they couldn’t get in,” Howard said during Monday’s board of supervisors meeting.
The board set a public hearing time and date — June 4 at 6 p.m. — during its meeting to allow residents an opportunity to join discussions on the lake’s future. In anticipation of that meeting, Howard said he is exploring solutions which could allow the county to maintain the lake’s day-to-day operations while the school board receives funding for the area’s lease.
“(In the June 4 public hearing) we will talk about options as for what we can do about the lake and opening it back up. I’ve been in touch with the (secretary of state’s office), (Miss. District 38 Rep.) Tyrone Ellis and (Golden Triangle Planning and Development District grant writer) Phylis Benson, and I’m going to call (the Department of the Interior) in D.C. to see what I can pull together,” Howard said. “When I have this discussion, I want to be able to lay everything out on the table. I can just tell you from my standpoint — and I’m just one supervisor — I want to keep it open and keep it public.”
MDWFP officials vacated their lakeside facilities last month after the organization declined to renew its 407-acre lease once the land reappraised for approximately $100 per acre. The previous 25-year lease mandated a $2,500 minimum payment to the county school board. Currently, the entire 642-acre 16th section is open for lease proposals. County school board officials have yet to set a deadline for proposals.
Supervisors said the school board was forced to close the lake’s main entrance because it does not possess liability insurance for the area.
During discussion, the board also fielded questions from the audience addressing the lake’s current situation. Board members reminded the public that the school board controls the land, as mandated by the state, and the county has little control over what the entity does with the property.
“This board … had nothing to do with locking the gate,” District 4 Supervisor Daniel Jackson said when answering an audience member’s question. “What we’ve been told by our legal counsel is the school board didn’t have much of a choice. This board has no statutory authority over the school board to tell them to leave that gate open.”
After a May 7 work session between the county school board and board of supervisors, District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery said no matter who holds the county lake lease, the area should remain open to the public. Following Monday’s meeting, he said he supported Howard’s efforts to find a solution to the problem.
“I think a lot of people are now going to be concerned since (the school board has) locked up the lake. I also think they’re going to have a hard time finding anyone to lease it for $100 an acre. I commend Marvell for doing everything he can to ensure the lake remains open; I’m behind him 100 percent because the lake must stay open to everybody,” Montgomery said. “I think this is one of those deals where state law is going to mess up. I don’t know how we’re going to get a state provision for this county-level problem. I’d urge everyone to call the secretary of state’s office and the school board to let them know that keeping the lake open to the public is very important.”