April 11, 2014 10:32:34 AM
Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker left Thursday's preliminary sanitation budgetary session after Board Attorney Chris Latimer, via a phone call to city representatives, said he could only observe, not participate in financial discussions.
In February, aldermen voted to trim its seven-person budget and audit committee down to three members -- Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn, Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard and Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins -- despite Walker volunteering to serve on the committee. He and Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, who also previously told The Dispatch he wanted to help guide city finances on the sub-committee, voted against the matter.
Walker was given the opportunity to comment on a preliminary budget request by Sanitation and Environmental Services Director Emma Gandy after Maynard, who chairs the committee, opened the floor to public discussions.
After a few rounds of input from both the committee and Walker, Perkins left the conference room. He later returned, pulling Chief Administrative Officer Taylor Adams from the meeting. Adams would go on to convey Latimer's message to the group after Walker discussed what landscapers look for in potential bids, a topic in which he has working knowledge as a landscape design teacher at Mississippi State University.
"I've been notified by the city attorney that as this meeting was noticed solely as a meeting of audit and budget committee, that an alderman not on that committee would need to be here observing only," Adams said. "In the event there was something needed to be discussed, it could be added to the agenda Tuesday. Per the city attorney on the opinion sought just now, we need to be adherent to that."
Both Thursday's budget meeting and a special-call board meeting -- aldermen authorized a grant application 30 minutes before the committee gathered -- were noticed in writing on the front of City Hall. Before the meeting began, Maynard asked city staff and aldermen if Walker could participate in the day's finance discussion. Maynard later opened the floor to public comments, which seemed tailored to allow Walker's input on the matter. Besides the press and city staff, Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk was the only member of the public present. Maynard later said work sessions usually do not open the floor for public input.
Walker quietly collected his papers and left the meeting shortly after Adams' announcement.
Any recommendations by the budget and audit committee require formal action by the entire Starkville Board of Aldermen. Thursday's meeting was to be used as a preliminary discussion on sanitation finances, not for action to set the department's budget in stone.
Maynard ended the meeting by reviewing motions he planned to present at the table Tuesday in lieu of the finance meeting and said he would brief fellow colleagues on the day's discussions.
"I do realize it will all come before the board for final decisions, but being involved early in the process is the best way to ensure that you understand each department's ins and outs. That way, we're not making a decision with second- or third-hand information being discussed at the table that night," Walker said. "I plan on making it to every budget and observing. If it turns out I can engage in discussions, I'll do that, too."
The audit and budget committee's size was reduced to allow more flexibility with members' schedules, Maynard said when the board took its February action. Any meeting with four or more aldermen requires a public notice.
As a board member who volunteered his service, Walker said the committee doesn't have to worry about additional scheduling conflicts as he wants to attend the meetings.
"I think if enough notice is given, anyone can work out their schedule," he said. "It's beneficial for all of us to be there so we have the best chance to represent our constituents during these important discussions."
Maynard said he would ask Latimer today for more clarity on the situation in order to guide future meetings.
"When we came into office, everyone was a bit gun shy on the law because of what happened with the previous board," he said in reference to a complaint filed against the prior board. "As new board members, we were always very careful to make sure everything is above the table. Obviously, there's no intention of keeping anybody out of these meetings."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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