By NATHAN GREGORY
A Starkville man filed an objection Tuesday in Oktibbeha County Chancery Court regarding the city’s agreement to issue certificates of participation connected to the construction of a new city hall.
William McGovern, who initially filed a bill of exceptions appeal in June to Oktibbeha County Circuit Court, later filed a complaint to the Mississippi Ethics Commission stating members of the Starkville Board of Aldermen held meetings in violation of Mississippi’s Open Meetings Act. Attorney Charles Yoste, who is representing McGovern, said the bill of exceptions was voluntarily dismissed because it was not the proper vehicle for challenging the adopted public-private partnership plan.
Yoste said McGovern’s objection is not with the board’s decision to pursue the municipal complex project but with the way members of the board who supported it set about planning for it. In a 4-3 vote, the Starkville Board of Aldermen approved a 20-year lease-purchase agreement with West Brothers Construction June 5 to build a new city hall and renovate the current one for the purpose of converting it into an larger, improved police station. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn voted against the resolution.
“Dr. McGovern’s objection is not that they were doing the project but the way it was accomplished,” Yoste said. “He thinks members of a municipal government illegally conspired to reach a legal goal.”
The complaint to MEC, which is currently pending, states the board’s two-day retreat held this past January was not pursuant to the open meetings code and that a quorum of aldermen met repeatedly after the retreat to discuss the project without notice or proper minutes.
“Other meetings were held at locations and dates which were unknown to the Complainant other than May 29, 2012; and another meeting held at the Starkville Public Parks and Recreation Center building,” the ethics complaint states. “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.”
McGovern later elaborates in the objection that a municipal complex committee was formed by the mayor and members of the board, who “retained experts and held meetings to discuss feasibility” of a municipal facility.
“These meetings were ‘public meetings’ … but were not open to the public, nor was the public notified or minutes kept. These meetings constituted ‘official acts’ in that they constituted the deliberate stages of the decision-making process that led to the formation and determination of public policy, that is, how the City of Starkville could build and finance a new City Hall and renovate the old City Hall for a police headquarters without having to have a public vote by the citizens on the projects,” the objection states. “These acts by city officials and certain members of the Board of Aldermen in holding these private meetings violated the Open Meetings Act of the State of Mississippi, and therefore, the resolution of the City of Starkville Board of Aldermen dated June 5, 2012 was obtained illegally ...”
In a rebuttal to McGovern’s complaint, City Attorney Chris Latimer said the allegations are inaccurate because the retreat was open to the public and there was no action taken during the retreat.
“These retreats are general work sessions at which time the Board discusses ‘big picture’ issues facing the City. The retreats are held in public. The press and public are notified of the retreats. The Board takes no action during these retreats. This year was no exception,” Latimer said in the rebuttal. “Starkville agrees that the Retreat, as a work session, is a ‘meeting’ under the Open Meetings Act … The Board Retreat was not, however, a ‘regular meeting’ under (Miss. Code) 21-3-19 and Starkville did not contemplate the Retreat being a ‘special meeting’ under (Miss. Code) 21-3-21. Thus, Starkville did not post written notice of it. To the extent, however, that the Board Retreat can be construed as an ‘interim’ or ‘special’ meeting under (Miss. Code) 25-41-13, Starkville will certainly post written notice for future Board Retreats … 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.”
McGovern also challenges in his objection that the city’s purchase contract is with an unidentified corporation over an unidentified building.
“(The resolution) authorizes the City to execute a purchase contract with a corporation that is unidentified; and lease real property to the City of Starkville to said unidentified corporation which is not legally described in said resolution or attached documents; authorizes the City to enter into a lease agreement with a corporation unidentified for the lease and purchase of a building which is also unidentified,” the objection states. “The Board of Aldermen of the City of Starkville can only speak through it’s (sic) minutes and a Court of Law cannot fill in the blanks. The citizens of the City of Starkville have a right to know what is being leased and subsequently purchased; with whom it is being leased; who is doing the construction of the building; and what is the cost to the citizen taxpayers.”
Yoste said the vagueness of the resolution regarding who is involved in the public-private partnership is another reason why McGovern believes it should be declared void.
“It doesn’t describe who is going to own the building (or) where it is to be built. (Those are) all blanks,” Yoste said. “There is nothing in the minutes describing who the partnership is going to be with.”
Wiseman said the omission of identity in the resolution is designed to allow West Brothers to form the corporation that will lease the facility in the manner company representatives believe best suits the project.
“The certificates of participation are based on a lease-purchase agreement, and the resolution is intended to give the construction company the latitude to establish the lessor corporation in a way that it deems most suitable,” Wiseman said.
The resolution states $6.7 million of the $8 million to be spent will be used to build the new city hall, with the remainder being spent on revamping the current one to house a police station.
Yoste said the chancery court will set a hearing date within 10 days of Sept. 12. The chancery court will decide the exact date on that day.
More information about the public-private partnership can be found at http://www.cityofstarkville.org/detail.php?p=2&s=214 .