By NATHAN GREGORY
Oktibbeha County Chancery Court has set a hearing date for an objection to the city of Starkville’s municipal complex plan filed Sept. 4.
The hearing will be held 9 a.m. Oct. 10 at the Oktibbeha County Courthouse.
The objection was filed more than a week before Wednesday’s scheduled validation hearing regarding the issuance of certificates of participation connected to the construction of a new city hall and conversion of the current city hall into a renovated, expanded police station — an $8 million project. The Starkville Board of Aldermen voted 4-3 in favor of the 20-year lease-purchase agreement with West Brothers Construction June 5. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn were the dissenting votes.
The complainant, William McGovern, filed the objection on the premises the board violated Mississippi’s Open Meetings Act and the agreement allows the city to enter into a lease agreement with an unidentified corporation for the lease and purchase of an unidentified building.
McGovern filed a complaint to the Mississippi Ethics Commission in June saying the board held various public meetings that weren’t actually open to the public and no minutes were taken at these meetings.
“It is reported that Mayor Parker Wiseman, other city officials, and Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, Alderman Eric Parker, Alderman Richard Cory (sic), Alderman Jeremiah Dumas attended these meetings along with consultants, architects, and bond attorneys for collaborating and development of a plan to build a new municipal city hall at the location of the vacant Starkville Electric Department building through the issuance of eight million dollars in certificates of participation bonds with a lease purchase by the City of Starkville with a corporation yet to be identified,” the complaint states. “It is believed that other meetings were held with the same Alderman (sic) and Mayor Parker Wiseman present along with other city officials to develop the plan for construction of the new city hall. None of these public meetings, were open to the public and it is reported that votes were taken by those Alderman (sic) present. No mention of any of these meetings is made in the official minutes of Mayor and board of Alderman (sic) of the City of Starkville, Mississippi from January to July 2012.”
One of the meetings McGovern references in his complaint is a board retreat held in January in which options to fund a municipal complex were discussed. In a rebuttal to McGovern’s complaint, City Attorney Chris Latimer said the board took no action during the retreat and Starkville substantially complied with the Open Meetings Act.
“The bottom line is that for enforcement to occur under the Open Meetings Act, there must be a finding that Starkville ‘has willfully and knowingly violated the (Act).’ … While there may have been some confusion over whether the Board Retreat was a ‘special’ or ‘interim’ meeting that required posted notice under (Miss. Code) 25-41-13, it is clear that Starkville did not willfully and knowingly fail to notice the Retreat,” Latimer said in the rebuttal. “By contrast, the evidence shows that Starkville took steps to make sure the press and public knew about it. The Retreat was an annual work session that was conducted in public. The Mayor announced the Retreat to the press and public during the two preceding regular meetings of the Board. Those announcements were broadcast on television … The press attended the Retreat. These facts are not consistent with Starkville knowingly and willfully trying to hide the Retreat.”