Commission Puts Secret Votes on Hold and Votes Openly -
By Keith Burton - GCN
Badly burned from reports of an improper secret ballot vote last month, the Harrison County Development Commission Tuesday, Nov. 25, re-voted to select legal representation and a new accounting firm, but did so openly this time. The small 11th floor conference room in Gulfport's Hancock Bank tower was a scene of quiet tension during the votes, commissioners were not used to a larger than normal media presence.
In an amazing reversal, the 11 commissioners present voted 9 to 1 in favor of rehiring their current legal firm, Allen, Vaughn, Cobb and Hood. The one dissenting vote was made by Commissioner Philip Terrell. Board President Bruce Norris only votes to break a tie. A replacement for Paige Gutierrez, who resigned last month, has not yet been made. Gutierrez did not attend the meeting where the secret ballot vote was made and had tendered her resignation.
At last monthís meeting, the board looked as if it was going to select Balch and Bingham LLC. In a vote by secret ballot, the commission was split 6 to 5. But the vote required a super majority of at least 7 commissioners and was insufficient to carry. The secret ballot vote was also determined improper after media brought attention on the issue and following an opinion by the state Attorney Generalís office.
Indeed, it look first as if B&B would be selected Tuesday. A motion to hire B&B was made and was defeated prior to the final vote.
You may wonder why the commission sought to change attorneys only to rehire a firm that has represented the HCDC for eight years. The result may have not been what was intended when the process to get a new law firm began.
Sources say only four law firms were asked to present proposals to the HCDC.
The decision to keep the existing firm is interpreted by some observers of the HCDC as a loss to some powerful members of the commission.
Among Balch and Binghamís clients is the Mississippi Power Company, which is represented by B & B attorney Ben Stone, who is general counsel for the utility. Stone also represents the State Port of Gulfport and is a member and former Chairman of the State Ethics Commission. Mississippi Power is a division of the Southern Company. Stone is very active in politics and often holds fund raisers for political candidates.
There are two Mississippi Power company officials on the HCDC board including Don Mason, vice-president of external affairs for Mississippi Power, and Frank Castiglia. In addition, Philip Terrell, the lone person to vote against rehiring the HCDC's previous legal firm, has also served on the Mississippi Power Co. board of directors.
If B&B had been named attorneys for the HCDC, that could have added significantly to Mississippi Power's influence on the HCDC.
Mason was appointed to the commission by Harrison County Supervisor Larry Benefield.
Obviously from the vote in October, others on the commission wanted Balch and Bingham, but those votes slipped away when they were cast Tuesday, Nov. 25th. As to who those commissioners were that supported B&B in last month's vote, we may never know as that was what was concealed in the secret ballot vote.
In the second major issue, the board selected the accounting firm of Alexander Van Loon Sloan, Levens and Farve to handle the commissionís 2003 fiscal year accounting. Commissioner Richard Bennett abstained and left the room before the vote.
The boardís attorney said that the new contracts will be submitted to the Harrison County Board of Supervisors for approval. In the past such contracts would not have been submitted.
District 5 Supervisor Connie Rockco and District 3 Supervisor Marlin Ladner have sought to require the HCDC to submit contracts to the supervisors if they were greater than $25,000. However, they did not get a majority of votes by the Board of Supervisors. Chief among the opponents to HCDC reforms is Harrison County Supervisor Larry Benefield who has accused Rockco of being on a witch hunt against the HCDC. But according to Rockco, an Attorney Generalís opinion says state law requires such submissions to occur.
Sending the contracts to the supervisors for approval suggests that the commission may be responding to reformerís recommendations and the media's attention.
The commission has been criticized for a variety of complaints from improper, even illegal procedures, improper recording of votes in minutes, and destroying financial records at the end of each year. Reformers, including supervisors Ladner and Rockco, former development Commissioner Dr. Paige Gutierrez, and current Commissioner Richard Bennett, have sought reforms for months.
But even before them, the issues of waste and questionable work were raised by former Commissioner Louis Elias of Long Beach, who describes his experience in a Letter to the Editor in The Sun Herald.
"Before gaming was legalized in 1992 this commission and its director had no economic revitalization plans, and without gaming we would still be twiddling our thumbs. Spending taxpayers' money for unnecessary first-class traveling for the director and commissioners abroad, extravagant golf and retreat outings, and ridiculous high salaries for the director and consultants is still out of hand. There is not enough space in this one letter to tell you, the taxpayers of Harrison County, the rest of the wasteful spending history of this untouchable commission."
Perhaps such reforms are now beginning to occur. Then again, maybe they hope the media and critics will just go away.
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