By Keith Burton – GCN 4/26/08
Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr, and its City Council were installed only seven weeks before Hurricane Katrina. Since then, a continuous series of events have shown the Warr administration and the City Council not up to the task of governing the city.
First, it is important for the Coast and the state, that Gulfport functions. The city is the second largest in the state. It is the home of the state’s largest port, which is also in trouble, but that is another story.
The evidence for Gulfport’s governmental disarray is extensive and easy for anyone to see. A council and mayor that promised when elected to get along, has fallen into complete disarray. Just this week, the latest fiasco erupted when the City Council voted not to follow a plan by the mayor to restore Grass Lawn, a historic home used for community events. The City Council voted not to accept a $500,000 state grant as part of funding to rebuild Grass Lawn. Mayor Warr was said to be livid when the council did not approve the measure. While the council vote appeared to be a slap in the mayor’s face, there is more to the decision than reported in the media. (Photo left: File photo of Gulfport City Council)
Warr has also had continuous trouble with the City Council. Several members have told GCN that he rarely includes them with his plans and objectives and then surprises them at the last minute before city council meetings with information that needs consideration and debate. This repeated process has slowed numerous issues and created confusion. Council meetings often drag out and issues are tabled for future meetings only never to come up again.
What is going on? Many people are asking.
Currently, Mayor Warr is embroiled in legal trouble with a federal grand jury investigation that Warr confirmed over a month ago stemming from his receipt of a state Homeowner Grant. That investigation has not gone away and while there has been no word from federal authorities on the status of the investigation, the FBI continues to collect information on activities in Gulfport. The result has left residents and other city officials in a quandary over the future of their leadership.
Then there is the lack of progress by the administration regarding numerous important issues. City Hall remains a leaky, hurricane damaged building that, while still in use, the Warr administration has yet to announce when, or even if, repairs will be made. While the mayor has shown drawings of a new municipal complex for city offices, not even an artist’s rendering of City Hall has been seen.
Just south is the huge Jones Park and Gulfport Harbor. Nothing has happened to restore the once thriving harbor. Warr has said that work should begin this summer, but the lack of progress on a very popular and needed facility has been seen by all as moving too slow. (Photo right: Gulfport Harbor interior, still void of piers or boats)
In addition, there are controversies surrounding the purchase of property for a new community center on Dedeaux Road, which has slowed work to construct the building, replacing the Orange Grove Community Center that was badly damaged by fire last year.
Then there are problems with the city’s handling and receipt of restoration funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Warr has said that the city took a year to figure out what help was needed after the hurricane, and another year to figure out the FEMA paperwork. While dealing with FEMA is a nightmare for most cities, Gulfport seems to be having more trouble.
Then there is Warr’s vision for the city. He has imagined Gulfport to be transformed into some form of new place, with a new look. While laudable in the long term, the city has more immediate needs and those have not been addressed. Instead, his administration has focused on numerous studies and architectural designs that do not actually address the city’s needs. Some of those designs can never be implemented as the city doesn’t control the property. To get around such problems, Warr has been at war with his own Planning Commission. His administration has also been seeking to rewrite portions of the city’s zoning code and implementing Smart Code ordinances to work around the Planning Commission (photo right), which doesn’t see his vision so clearly.
(Photo above left: Warr's gothic black street lights are part of his new vision for his beachfront city.)
Among the recent efforts underway, is to rewrite the city’s B-2 zoning ordinance that covers where businesses can be located and create more controls on how new businesses should look. At a recent workshop for the Planning Commission, the administration was represented by former Gulfport Chief Administrative Officer David Nichols (Photo right), who was working for a developer as a consultant, to help the administration re-write the B-2 ordinance. Such an arrangement is nearly unprecedented. The explanation from the planning office was that the city didn’t have the time or the manpower to redesign the zoning code on its own.
Recently, Warr’s administration, often referred to as “City Hall,” in a local newspaper, announced that it has a problem with MDOT’s restoration of U.S. 90, which amazingly, is moving faster that Gulfport can handle. The city needs to rebuild sections of its water and sewer lines damaged by Katrina, and fears it will have to tear-up sections of what will be the newly rebuilt highway. MDOT officials have told Gulfport that the city will be responsible for paying for the repairs of sections of the roadway that are torn up or left un-repaired, money that Gulfport doesn’t have, or will have to find from FEMA.
Misinformation, contradictory information and biased news reports in the local major media have contributed to the Grass Lawn controversy. Many see the local major media as mouth pieces for the mayor. (Photo left: Gulfport City Hall's temporary roof is pealing away.)
There is a reason for this perception; both the Sun Herald and WLOX openly supported Warr during his campaign. Both of those news outlets are part of the Gulf Coast Business Council, which Warr has admitted to listening to in guiding some of his decisions. The Gulf Coast Business Council, a private organization, says its mission is to “help guide public policy.”
When the Grass Lawn issue erupted and sent the mayor livid, the reporting failed to detail why the council voted as they did. Only a day after the Sun Herald used its front page to editorialize over the council’s actions did it carry a different view. Some see the rebuilding of Grass Lawn as an example of getting priorities wrong as City Hall, the people’s house, has yet to be restored. There are also concerns that the mayor continues to keep the council in the dark on too many important issues that affect the city’s future. (Photo right: Grass Lawn before Katrina)
The Grass Lawn issue has unleashed a barrage of criticism against some City Council members, as well as the mayor for not finding a consensus to insure his policies go forward. Writers to the GCN Message Board have reflected outrage and ridicule against Gulfport’s government. Many residents see the city’s government embroiled in too many trivial issues. The following are some of the posted messages:
As can be seen in the posts, Gulfport residents are following what is going on in their city and they are unhappy and discouraged. This follows Katrina’s devastation with its own discouragement and it is having an effect Coastwide. Every community leader on the Coast is watching as Gulfport’s government seems to be falling apart. They worry about how these problems will affect their communities.
The Coast’s major news media has done little to outline the problems in Gulfport except to ignore them. Part of the problem is that the information from Gulfport has become unreliable. Promises made by the administration do not result in projects completed or even goals outlined. Recently, Warr issued a State of the City speech where he sought to outline some accomplishments. For many listeners to his speech, it was the first they had heard of what has been going on. GCN has asked council members if they have received a detailed plan from the administration on the architectural plans from Warr's hired Urban Planner, or a detailed repair schedule for city buildings and services and they say they have not.
Late last year, FEMA warned the city administration that it was allowing construction in ways that violated the city’s own regulations and FEMA rules for elevations and warned the city could endanger its participation in the National Flood Insurance Program. The city has since started to comply but the issue is still one that FEMA is monitoring.
Blame shifting, lack of information, inaccurate information, have all become part of the city’s government. Errors in judgment, failing to follow regulations and general confusion has taken its toll. To this end, all of this has hurt Gulfport and its residents, and it is hurting the recovery of the entire Coast.