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Taxpayer funds, private donations fuel municipal building litigation

 

Carl Smith

 

Divisions between Starkville's political ideologies are emerging through how a legal battle over municipal facilities' construction is funded. 

 

The City of Starkville spent $44,979.77 to fund litigation costs defending its municipal facilities plan, officials confirmed Monday. 

 

As of Feb. 21, City Attorney Chris Latimer was paid $3,662.30 for his services, while Randall B. Wall, an attorney with the Jackson-based firm Jones Walker, charged $41,282 for fees and $35.47 for expenses. 

 

Wall is a Harvard-educated representative who offers counsel regarding economic development projects and finance issues for municipalities. 

 

While potential legal fees will be budgeted through the project, they will only cover Wall's services. His fees will be paid with taxpayer money through future payments associated with the project. 

 

Latimer's fees, however, are taxpayer monies derived from Starkville's general coffers and could have been used in other city areas. 

 

That total could rise, however, since Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman confirmed the city received notice of Attorney Charles Yoste's motion for the Mississippi Supreme Court to reconsider its decision denying William McGovern's appeal of a previous chancery court case on how the city plans to finance future municipal projects. 

 

The new motion was filed last week, Wiseman said, and the city filed its own response Tuesday. 

 

Starkville TEA Party members confirmed they acted as a middle-man for private donations to McGovern's cause. 

 

STP member Gary Chesser said members collected private donations from both STP-involved residents and those not affiliated with the group. Those funds were funneled to Yoste to help reduce McGovern's financial burden. The organization did not use its own money for donations, he said. 

 

STP includes some members who do not live in Starkville. 

 

John Lee, another STP member, said approximately $450 was collected by STP. Lee did not have direct access to documents detailing a specific amount when contacted by The Dispatch. 

 

Members hinted at the possibility of larger private donations which were not handled by the group, but they stopped short of naming donors or an amount. 

 

An undated email obtained by The Dispatch shows STP informed its members of how to donate to McGovern's chancery court case and a subsequent appeal to the state's high court. 

 

"Attorney Charles Yoste has filed an appeal in the case which may take months before it comes up before the Supreme Court in Jackson. Contributions made through the STP before the original case were used for that purpose," the email states. "This case will cost several thousand dollars so anyone who is interested in helping defray the cost of this suit can send their donation to Charles Yoste ... Any amount will be greatly appreciated." 

 

STP President Jane Vemer confirmed a notice was sent to members outlining how interested persons could donate privately to the cause. 

 

Litigation over municipal project funding processes began in Nov. when McGovern filed a bill of exceptions appeal with the Oktibbeha County Circuit Court in June. He later filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commissions accusing the city of violating the state's open meetings act. The bill of exceptions was voluntarily dismissed and replaced by an objection with the Oktibbeha County Chancery Court. 

 

McGovern's action objected to the city's plan to issue certificates of participation as a financing mechanism for the construction of a new city hall. 

 

Davidson's December ruling stated "due process requirements of law" were met by the city and allegations of open meetings violations were "collateral and have no bearing upon the ultimate decision." 

 

Although McGovern's objection was denied, the MEC ruled Starkville failed to strictly comply with the state's Open Meetings Act. 

 

McGovern then filed an appeal with the Mississippi Supreme Court on Jan. 9, a fact Starkville's legal counsel contested was done after the 20-day appeal deadline which ended Jan. 7. 

 

The court granted Latimer's dismissal, and Associate Justice Ann H. Lamar signed an order denying McGovern's request to strike the previous decision. 

 

Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas said perceived STP support for the continuing municipal litigation is "wrought full of irony" since the group supposedly stands against wasting taxes. 

 

After residents defeated an $8.45 million bond for a new police station in 2011, Dumas said aldermen took that as a sign to find solutions without raising taxes. The city's current plan utilizes money free in its budget, soon-to-be retired debt and projected tax revenues toward a 20-year lease-purchase agreement for a new City Hall at the former Starkville Electric Department's site. 

 

The current City Hall would then be renovated and used in its entirety by Starkville Police Department. 

 

"I think litigation is a complete waste of taxpayer dollars. I personally met with members of the Tea Party who told me that we need new facilities without a tax increase. I left that meeting with the understanding that they might even support a plan that didn't raise taxes," Dumas said. "I cannot help the fact that there is general distrust of government on a federal level due to this national movement, but the fact of the matter is that government has to continue forward." 

 

In an open letter written by Gene Martin, the STP member says city officials used a legal loophole to continue with a municipal building process that demonstrated ignorance, arrogance and indifference toward Starkville's electorate. 

 

Aldermen bypassed their constituents when three representatives cast "Yea" votes for the municipal complex. Those three aldermen are from wards which voted against the 2011 bond issue, he said.  

 

Martin said the city's cost of litigation could have at least covered the price of conducting stratified studies on how residents would like to proceed with municipal facility planning. 

 

STP also met with city officials during the process which developed municipal facility plans. The group also held its own forum and invited Starkville leaders to answer lingering questions. 

 

"We had a private meeting with Roy Ruby and expressed what we saw - the word-on-the-street feeling we were getting from taxpayers," Chesser said. Ruby served on a citizen-driven committee tasked with developing municipal facility plans. "We told them taxpayers would not support a big project for a new mayor's office. People know we need a police facility, and that's what we're willing to support." 

 

At the end of the day, Dumas said the city's answer to facility problems addressed what the electorate wanted: a sound plan without a tax hike. He said he is proud of the leadership and process which developed the current plan. 

 

"We can't be confused by the result of the referendum. That was a vote on raising your taxes, not on the process," he said. "Right now, we have deplorable municipal facilities that must be addressed."

 

Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch

 

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