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Judge sides with city in McGovern case

December 19, 2012

By STEVEN NALLEY
educ@starkvilledailynews.com

The Oktibbeha County Chancery Court authorized the city of Starkville Tuesday to issue general certificates of participation to finance a new municipal building and renovations to the current City Hall totaling $8 million, denying William McGovern’s objection.

The Starkville Board of Aldermen announced this ruling at its meeting Tuesday. City Attorney Chris Latimer said McGovern and his 347 fellow objectors will have 20 days to file an appeal. Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said he was glad to hear the court’s ruling.

“It’s very good news for the city,” Wiseman said, “and we’re looking forward to proceeding on the project. This gives the city the green light to proceed with the project that encompasses building a new City Hall building at the end of Main Street at the site of the old electric department and renovating (the current City Hall afterward).”

In June, the city of Starkville passed a resolution to finance the construction and renovation through the Mississippi Lease-Purchase Law, leasing the former Starkville Electric Department property to a company that will fund construction and lease the new building back to the city over 20 years. Wiseman released a copy of 14th Chancery District Chancellor Jim Davidson’s opinion and final judgment after the meeting.

This opinion says McGovern made two allegations. First, it says, he alleged the board violated the Mississippi Open Meetings Act.

“The proof showed that meetings had taken place before the June 5, 2012 regular meeting at which the resolution was adopted. There was not a quorum of the board present, nor was there any affirmative action taken,” the opinion said. “If this was a violation of the Mississippi Open Meetings law, it is properly to be determined by ... the Mississippi State Ethics Commission. McGovern’s objection indicates that there is a pending complaint before the Ethics Commission. Even if the commission’s decision is in the affirmative for McGovern ... The Board can conduct violative meetings for years and then convene in a regular, properly called meeting and pass a resolution with impunity.”

Second, the opinion says, McGovern alleged the board failed to specify the lessee corporation, the property to be leased or the construction company in its resolution, leaving the relevant sections blank.

“McGovern asserts that the places left blank are fatal to the approval of the procedure by this court and that the public’s right to know the details of the project have been diminished,” the opinion says. “Both the ground lease and the lease contained an attachment describing the real property and the improvements to be constructed. The court does agree that the blanks create possible suspicion of impropriety to the layman, but disagrees that this is fatal.”

The opinion’s conclusion says the board might have been wiser to explain the certificates of participation procedure directly to the public, address the choice of lessor and contractor and share drawings of the project before making its resolution. It also says the court’s role is not to determine the wisdom of board actions.

“Based on the issues presented and the review of all documents and evidence, the court finds that the due process requirements of law have been met,” the opinion says. “Taxpayer citizens had all the information available to them and ample opportunity to become informed. The alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act are collateral and have no bearing upon the ultimate decision.”

The board went into a brief executive session after its Tuesday meeting, and Wiseman said one of the topics discussed was McGovern’s objection. After the executive session, he said no action was taken on that matter, only discussion led by the city attorney.

The board also rejected a motion by Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins to rescind all action pertaining to certificates of participation for new municipal facilities in a 4-3 vote, with Perkins, Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn and Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver in favor.

More details on this development will appear in Thursday’s edition of the Starkville Daily News.

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