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Slippery Business - Part II
Editorial Calls for "Bickering" to Stop in Harrison County Development Commission Controversy       (For Part I -Click Here)

by Keith Burton - GCN

Questions over the performance and accountability of the Harrison County Development Commission continue to occur. The most recent comes in an odd editorial in the Sunday, November 23, 2003 edition of The Sun Herald that calls for an end to the "ruckus."

The editorial is a transparent indication that the commission's management is failing to do its job by not resolving the disputes raised by several Harrison County Supervisors and some of the commission’s board members over the last two years. These questions have accelerated over the last several months as reported by GCN.

One commissioner, Dr. Paige Gutierrez resigned over her concerns that the commission is functioning improperly and needs reforms.

"I will not continue to serve as a Commissioner charged with oversight of this public agency, in which there is a lack of meaningful accountability, a disregard for lawful procedures, unnecessary secrecy, a disdain for public input and opinion, and wasteful spending of taxpayers' money.  Moreover, as a Commissioner who must vote on issues, I have learned that I cannot trust the information presented to me by staff," reads Gutierrez's October 28, 2003 letter of resignation.

In a recent interview, Harrison County Supervisor Marlin Ladner told GCN that the HCDC has failed to provide financial records requested by supervisors as long ago as last February, even though it was ordered to do so by a vote of the board.

Ladner, along with Supervisor Connie Rockco and others, have spearheaded a call for reforms and accountability within the HCDC, but have had many of their efforts criticized and blocked, even though the some of their efforts appear to be required by law.

Ladner says part of the problem is how the HCDC is organized. While the county must approve the HCDC’s budget and land contracts, the county has had difficulty getting the HCDC to respond to questions about its expenditures and operations. The problem, Ladner says, is accountability. The county only has five appointees to the commission’s 12-member board of directors. The other board members are appointed by the mayors of the county’s five cities with two additional appointees made by the governor.

The lack of support for reforms by the rest of the commission’s board members and some county supervisors suggests why not? The problems that have been identified by Gutierrez, Bennett, The Sun Herald, and others should be cause of concern for them as well. Ladner says the cities have a stake in an efficient and properly run development commission.

Nobody Has Control

Part of Ladner concerns is that only the county provides money to the commission’s operations. The cities and state do not. He says the county, therefore, has a responsibility by law to make sure the HCDC spends its money properly and that it actually performs its tasks as required, issues that have been difficult to prove.

The fact that the HCDC's board has not voted to order the HCDC's director Michael Olivier to cooperate with reforms is telling.

“It is almost like everybody is in control, but nobody has control,” Ladner said. “The control mechanism is out of whack,”

In addition, the HCDC has routinely destroyed financial records, as reported by The Sun Herald. This has made it hard for reformers such as Rockco and Ladner to determine what is going on.

The financial picture is only part of the problems within the commission. Investigators with the State Auditors Office have been examining the HCDC’s records since last Spring, but have yet to issue a report. A spokesman for the State Auditors Office declined to say what the nature of their inquiry involves.

Belated Calls for Action

The Sun Herald's November 23 editorial, “The Bickering Must Stop,” calls for everyone involved to resolve the issues, and voices concern that the "publicity" over the problems rather than the issues by the reformers, has affected the commission's ability to do its job.

At least one prominent CEO in South Mississippi is convinced that the publicity generated by each dustup in this ongoing ruckus hampers the commission's ability to attract corporate prospects to the county. These disputes must be settled…”

“…We are not going to wade into the "he said, she said" nature of most of the squabbles and disputes that regularly occupy the time of commission officials and members of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors. However justified some of these quarrels may be, it is inexcusable that any of them have gone on for so long,” Reads the editorial in part.

Unfortunately, it seems the editors of the Sun Herald believe that "publicity" and the reporting of activities of county government is a bad thing. An odd position for a newspaper to state. Why doesn’t The Sun Herald examine the issues identified in the reformer’s recommendations? Because the reporting is absent in the newspaper.  If you had not seen this information on GulfCoastNews.com, you probably would wonder what prompted the newspaper’s editorial.

The issues that have been raised by Rockco, Ladner, Bennett and Gutierrez, as well as former commissioners, are far more notable than petty bickerings and quarrels. After all, this is not a family squabble, but an agency of government supported by taxpayer money, and to editorially allude to such as a “dustup” is very condescending to the public for a news publication. If the public, commissioners and supervisors cannot ask questions, get answers and make recommendations, who can?

The Sun Herald editorial concludes:

“If there is anything wrong with the Harrison County Development Commission, it needs to be made right, right now.”

Remarkably, the newspaper should know that there is something wrong within the development commission. The editors said as much over a year ago.

In an editorial regarding public records at the HCDC published by the Sun Herald on Oct. 31, 2002, the newspaper said:

“It seems the Harrison County Development Commission destroys its business files immediately after each year’s audit, denying Harrison County Supervisor Connie Rockco an opportunity to investigate the commission’s spending habits over a four-year period….Such documents are not the private property of those officials who create them. They belong to the citizens, and ought to be readily available and reliable.”

The Sun Herald correctly noted that destroying records is a bad thing, certainly within a government agency. Isn't this proof that the problems within the HCDC are not just another squabble among political people and that the commission deserves greater criticism and examination? What about the public's justifiable right to make sure its government and agencies perform well?

Missing financial records are only part of the problem. Gutierrez says that staff has told her that other records are unavailable, and she is aware of where actual minutes to the commission's meetings have been changed. At an October commission meeting, an improper secret ballot vote was taken on selecting a new attorney and accounting firm.

The board’s president said in a statement after the secret ballot was revealed in the media that such votes had been taken in the past. As a result of the attention, the board is to vote correctly in an upcoming meeting. The Sun Herald correctly saw that such voting was also improper in a story published Oct 31, 2003 "HCDC Rethinks Secret Ballot."

The opponents to reform keep trying to turn this conflict into an issue of personalities, while never addressing the problems or issues. This is usually a tactic of someone with something to hide.

But the public is interested as evidenced from these examples from GCN's Message Board.

Posted by: Tim Hartman () 11/13/2003 18:52
This is all very interesting!! Nothing new though. Been this way forever. Good luck, citizens, on effecting any changes! Hopefully, state auditors may be of some help. Keep the pressure on!! We should all get behind this effort.

Posted by: Melody (doglady@millenicom.com) 11/03/2003 06:37
It is too bad that the good people get out and leave the bad ones to their own devices.
I share Ms. Paige's indignation and I hope to hear about her future activities to affect change in how Harrison county conducts its business. I am available to help in this endeavor.

To this date, the resistance to reforms and accountability continues. This resistance comes from the HCDC, part of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors and others with perhaps something to be gained in making sure reforms are not made. Reformers hope that with additional pressure from the media, and the public, positive changes will occur.

Privately, the reformers say the development commissions problems and the county's lack of oversight over the years point to a need to examine the county's other commissions and boards.

For more background and related information click on the following links:

Slippery Business - Part I
What's Going On at the Harrison County Development Commission?

"Slippery Business"  - GCN Archive