September 4, 2014 10:58:51 AM
Nine public officials from Columbus and Lowndes County attended the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Opportunities Conference last week. The trip -- which seven city officials and two county officials made -- cost roughly $9,850.
The annual event is "probably the biggest meeting of the year" for elected officials, developers, business owners and other stakeholders in the 54 counties from Paducah, Kentucky, to Mobile, Alabama, located on the waterway, said Agnes Zaiontz, the business manager at the local Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway headquarters.
The conference's goal is to provide a chance for leaders to learn more about waterway objectives, what it can offer businesses, and how to market waterway property to potential industries, Zaiontz said.
The conference was held at Point Clear, Alabama, from Aug. 26-28.
Marty Turner, one of four Columbus councilmen who attended, said conferences like this one have been helpful for him during his first year as an elected official.
"When I go to conferences, I go to gain knowledge," Turner said. "That's the only way I learn how to be a city councilman is by taking these trips and getting knowledge."
However, criticism of how some leaders spent their time has surfaced. The Dispatch has been contacted from concerned citizens claiming some councilmen spent a part of their time in Alabama vacationing rather than attending meetings. The claims revolved around accusations that the officials went deep sea fishing during one of the conference sessions.
Contacted Wednesday by The Dispatch, city councilmen Gene Taylor, Joseph Mickens and Marty Turner confirmed that they went fishing during one of the sessions. They added, however, that no taxpayer money was used for the fishing charter and that they attended the majority of the conference's seminars.
"I go to conferences, I go to classes and I graduate from my classes and have proof of that," Taylor said.
"I went to just about all the sessions when we were there Wednesday and Thursday," Mickens said. "We went out there around lunch time that morning...it was not a city expense."
Turner said all those present on the fishing trip pooled personal expenses together to pay for it.
"During that time when that session was taking place (when the fishing trip happened), I didn't think it would be beneficial to the city, so that's why I opted to go there instead of going to the session," Turner said. "If I had the opportunity to do something that I'd never done before, I would take that opportunity."
The fishing expedition, Turner said, was not a good one.
"It was a sickening trip," he said. "It wasn't enjoyable at all. We went deep sea fishing, but everybody was throwing up. Nobody had their sea legs."
Councilman Charlie Box also attended the conference. He said he was asked if he wanted to go on the fishing trip but declined the offer. He defended the value of the conference to elected leaders and said it was important to have Columbus representation there.
"I have defended it and will continue to defend it," Box said. "For us not to support it as a city would be a slap in the face to both the waterway and Agnes...it's a good conference. There's a lot of information that's given out if you go to the meetings."
Attendees stayed at the Marriot's Grand Hotel where the conference took place. Almost 290 people in total attended.
Other conference attendees from Columbus and Lowndes County included Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, chief operations officer David Armstrong, county supervisor John Holliman and Lowndes County Chancery Clerk Lisa Younger Neese.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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