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Supervisors Vote to Take Control of HCDC Funds   Filed 8/2/04
by Keith Burton - GulfCoastNews.com

In a move that some would have said impossible only a few months ago, the Harrison County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to take over the financial accounts of the Harrison County Development Commission.

"We are finding out a lot of things we were not aware of," said Bobby Eleuterius, president of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors."

The supervisors made their decision on a motion by Supervisor Marlin Ladner. Ladner cited numerous laws and previous Attorney General opinions prior to making his motion at the board's Monday morning meeting. Their action followed a presentation by Royce Hignight to the board. Hignight cited irregularities in the HCDC's operations. Hignight is a retired FBI agent that has been vocal in asking for reforms in the HCDC. Hignight is well known on the Coast for his successful investigations into white collar crime on the Coast over the past 20 years before he retired.

The supervisors also voted to request yet another Attorney General opinion as to whether the county can pay for a comprehensive performance and compliance audit of the HCDC. Supervisors June 12 voted to conduct the independent audits to determine how and on what the HCDC has been using its money.

The HCDC is believed to have between 6 and 7 million dollars in the bank from land sales and other fees the agency collects.

As long ago as 1986, Eleuterius had sought to place the HCDC's funds under the control of the county as he had AG opinions that such an action was required by law.

"But I didn't have the support of the board to pursue this until now," Eleuterius told GCN.

Supervisors Marlin Ladner and Connie Rockco have spearheaded efforts to reform the HCDC for several years, often at great criticism by others on the Board of Supervisors and some people in business. However, growing concerns over the HCDC's operations have escalated in recent months.

The unanimous vote in today's meeting marks a major change in the board's feelings toward the agency, which had included support from Eleuterius.

"I have basically lost all confidence in them and we have to do something about it," Eleuterius said.

The HCDC is currently without a director. Former Director Michael Olivier left the agency July 1 to take a job as Louisiana's economic development director. The HCDC and Olivier have been under fire for a wide range of problems from how they have dealt with the public, to destroying records, improper minutes, and questionable land transactions. Recently, the HCDC was criticized for competing with private land developers in its Biloxi Commerce Park development.

The HCDC has also recently been criticized for allowing the sale of HCDC property to BankCorpSouth bank, the same company that employs the current HCDC President Elmer Williams.

No one from the HCDC was in attendance at the Board of Supervisors meeting at the time of the board's vote. However, HCDC Commissioner Richard Bennett attended later. Williams is on vacation and was not available for comment.

Bennett, along with former HCDC Commissioner Paige Gutierrez, who resigned last October,  have been critical of the way the HCDC operates. The two co-authored an opinion article last year that outlined changes they thought were needed, most the requirements of law. Some of those changes are among what the supervisors have initiated.

Bennett says the board's actions are needed.

"I think it is a good thing because the supervisors are accountable to the taxpayers. I don't think some of my colleagues believe that," said Bennett.

Eleuterius believes that the HCDC will likely fight the supervisors actions to take control of the HCDC's funds, but he is confident that they have the law on their side.

Under the plan, the HCDC would still be able to write checks to pay for bills, but only after the money to be spent was authorized by the Board of Supervisors, which they said they would do at their first meeting every month.


Related:

GCN "Slippery Business" Archive of stories on the HCDC

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