June 26, 2014 10:49:26 AM
Starkville is defending itself from under-the-table collusion claims by attesting its mayor and seven aldermen do not conduct secret meetings or know how other board members will vote prior to meetings, all while painting the complainant as a political dissident.
The Dispatch recently viewed the city's defense, which was filed last month, on background and granted anonymity to its source and original petitioner due to the sensitive nature of the ongoing Mississippi Ethics Commission investigation.
Several sources previously confirmed the filers' identity with The Dispatch before officials were told to keep quiet on the matter until the investigation was concluded and its results were announced by the state.
A call to the state Ethics Commission was not returned by press time.
It is unknown when the commission will deliver its findings or make a decision on either complaint.
Two complaints were filed against Starkville stemming from a controversial school board appointment in February. That night, aldermen appointed Juliette Weaver-Reese to a five-year term after denying former Starkville School District Board of Trustees President Eddie Myles an opportunity to interview for and continue serving in his position.
Myles failed to re-apply for the position -- he told The Dispatch he simply forgot about the matter -- in a timely manner, but Mayor Parker Wiseman added his application to the agenda and set an interview time after the long-serving school board member said he was interested in guiding SSD as it consolidates with Oktibbeha County School District next year.
An open meetings act complaint -- the charge that ties in with the city's defense examined by The Dispatch -- accuses the entire governing body of repeatedly participating in secret meetings and seeks a full state investigation into a pattern dating back to July 1, when aldermen and the mayor began the current term.
Specifically, the complaint focuses on Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn, saying her public comments during the Feb. 18 board meeting indicate aldermen tend to business outside of the public's purview.
"Sometimes as board members, we have to make decisions behind the scenes that some of you may not understand, and they are quite difficult. Tonight was one of those," Wynn said on Feb. 18.
Starkville's defense, as filed by board attorney Chris Latimer, asks the commission to deny each paragraph of allegations previously filed. It says the allegations fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and lack a basis of fact. The allegation of periodic, off-the-books meetings is purely speculative, Latimer writes, which falls shy of the clear and convincing burden of proof needed to establish an open meetings violation.
All seven aldermen -- Ben Carver, David Little, Jason Walker, Scott Maynard, Roy A. Perkins, Henry Vaughn and Wynn -- submitted similarly worded affidavits claiming they have never been part of gatherings outside of regularly scheduled meetings, properly noticed recess and special-call meetings or strategic board retreats.
Those submissions also state aldermen come to the table with an idea of how they're going to vote on city matters based upon their board packets, but they do not make their decision until they hear public comments and other aldermen's thoughts.
Four of the eight affidavits were notarized by either Chanteau Wilson or Lesa Hardin, two city employees, while two others were notarized by Lowndes County officials, where Latimer practices law. Vaughn's affidavit shows a notary stamp bearing Perkins' name.
"At times, the board votes without discussing an item. That is because the item does not bear discussion, not because the votes have been prearranged," the affidavits state.
Wynn's affidavit tempers her February comments by saying they were not meant to allude to behind-the-scenes meetings. Rather, it states, the Ward 2 alderman meant to say she agonized over her personal decision about the school board appointment before coming to the board table that night.
"I have no knowledge of two or more Starkville aldermen meeting at any time during this term to formulate public policy," the affidavit states.
A Freedom of Information Act request revealed Wynn sent at least one email from a private account setting up board business in a future meeting. The Dispatch issued the FOIA last year after Wynn and Little stumped for a legislative review of the city's sidewalk and street ordinances after calling the rules prohibitive to economic development.
From a private address -- firstname.lastname@example.org -- Wynn acted in her official capacity as an alderman by notifying the rest of the board that she would add a comprehensive review request to board business at the upcoming meeting. She detailed her upcoming actions by saying she would express concerns over the rules and then motion to task former Community Development Director William Snowden with handling the review and presenting its findings in November.
Wynn signed the email by tagging her name with "(A2)," or Ward 2 alderman.
A second ethics complaint stemming from the school board appointment was filed against Vaughn after he participated in votes relating to the matter. The state Ethics Commission previously warned Vaughn and former Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas to stop participating in school board matters as they had relatives working in the system.
City minutes show Weaver-Reese's five-year appointment was motioned by Vaughn and seconded by Wynn. After the meeting, Vaughn told The Dispatch that his daughter works for the system, and he participated in the vote because she does not live with him.
Maynard and Walker recused themselves from the entire matter since they also have relatives that work for SSD. Maynard's son works for the district and does not live with him, he confirmed after the meeting.
Vaughn adhered to the state Ethics Commission's request after it was issued in 2010 and recused himself from subsequent votes that year through 2012. Last year, former school board President Keith Coble retained his elected seat after no challengers qualified. Coble's seat is the only currently elected position, which is determined by residents who live within SSD's boundaries but outside of city limits.
In January, Vaughn took exception to months of public criticism directed at him and fellow aldermen by lashing out and describing such statements as a "disgrace in the sight of God."
"You elected all seven of us to serve, but you're so disgraceful and so unfaithful (to the city)," he said at the board table that month. "It's always something bad that this board is doing. It's a shame on you all. It's a disgrace in the sight of God."
Vaughn, who previously opposed expanding alcohol sales to Sundays, was arrested last week by Oktibbeha County deputies and charged with DUI first, no insurance and careless driving.
He was absent from last week's board of aldermen meeting due to a death in the family.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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