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2017: Year in review for Columbus and Lowndes County

 

Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Philip Hickman glares at school board president Jason Spears during a Nov. 13 discussion about whether to extend Hickman’s employment contract. The board voted 3-2 not to extend the contract past June 30, 2018, and to begin the search for a new superintendent.

Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Philip Hickman glares at school board president Jason Spears during a Nov. 13 discussion about whether to extend Hickman’s employment contract. The board voted 3-2 not to extend the contract past June 30, 2018, and to begin the search for a new superintendent. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

The Lowndes County Board of Supervisors and Columbus City Council met Dec. 7 at Trotter Convention Center to discuss the terms of a potential joint resolution to renew the 2-percent restaurant tax. When it was over, very little had been resolved.

The Lowndes County Board of Supervisors and Columbus City Council met Dec. 7 at Trotter Convention Center to discuss the terms of a potential joint resolution to renew the 2-percent restaurant tax. When it was over, very little had been resolved.
Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff

 

Columbus Police Chief Oscar Lewis speaks during a press conference at the Municipal Complex Jan. 11.

Columbus Police Chief Oscar Lewis speaks during a press conference at the Municipal Complex Jan. 11.
Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff

 

 

Dispatch Staff Report

 

 

Columbus and Lowndes County found the national and state spotlight several times in 2017, sometimes for all the wrong reasons. 

 

A feud still lingers between Columbus and Lowndes County leaders on how to renew and divide 2-percent restaurant tax revenue, and a potentially armed and dangerous suspect remains at-large after he broke out of the Lowndes County Adult Detention Center. 

 

Meanwhile, Columbus Police Department endured a tumultuous year that saw highly publicized officer misconduct, an officer-involved shooting and the police chief resigning. 

 

But on a much brighter note, DNA evidence led to a suspect's arrest in a 1996 cold case murder, bringing a sense of long-sought closure to the victim's family. 

 

Here are some of the top stories of 2017. 

 

 

 

City, county spar over restaurant tax renewal 

 

A still unresolved months-long dispute between Columbus leaders and Lowndes County supervisors has jeopardized the renewal of a countywide 2-percent restaurant tax and put at risk the very existence of the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

 

The tax, which collects an extra 2 percent on prepared food and beverage sales at establishments where gross annual revenue for those items is at least $325,000, is set to expire in June 2018. It requires renewal from Mississippi Legislature to continue, and lawmakers have indicated that won't happen without a joint resolution from the city and county. 

 

For the past 10 years, 85 percent of the tax has provided the lion's share of funding for CVB's tourism promotion efforts, while the remaining 15 percent helps fund Golden Triangle Development LINK economic development efforts. Collections have steadily risen over that time, with the restaurant tax generating nearly $2 million in Fiscal Year 2017. 

 

Supervisors in October resolved to renew the tax and again divide it only between the CVB and LINK at roughly the same proportions as the current term. The city council, however, resolved to take 20 percent for its recreation department, take another $100,000 each year to complete the Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater on The Island, give $250,000 to the LINK and leave CVB with the rest. The city also sought to reorganize the nine-member CVB board to where the council would appoint the majority of its members, rather than the current system where the county and city each appoint four and jointly appoint the ninth member. 

 

Discussions ensued on whether the city and county should get recreation money from the tax -- a move that would have cut the CVB budget essentially in half -- but in December supervisors, by a 3-2 margin, stuck by the money division spelled out in their original resolution. 

 

The city council, in response, resolved to ask legislators to create a new restaurant sales tax that would only be citywide and allow the countywide tax to expire. 

 

 

 

Police chief retires 

 

Columbus Police Chief Oscar Lewis began 2017 embattled. He ended the year retired. 

 

In the wake of a severe officer shortage, and following comments to reporters during a press conference where Lewis blamed the city's perceived spike in crime on biblical "End Times" prophecy, the city council hired Memphis-based criminology professor and police consultant K.B. Turner to study the Columbus Police Department. 

 

In August, once the six-month study concluded, Turner presented his findings to the council. Among them: Lewis was a weak leader who had to go. 

 

But rather than the council fire Lewis, Mayor Robert Smith placed the chief on a five-month improvement plan without publicly releasing the tenets of what Lewis specifically was supposed to improve. The time frame of the plan ran through year's end, which also happened to correspond with when Lewis could begin collecting his retirement. 

 

Earlier this month, Lewis announced his retirement effective Dec. 28. Assistant Chief Fred Shelton has been named interim chief. 

 

 

 

CMSD superintendent's contract not renewed 

 

After four consecutive years of Columbus Municipal School District receiving a D rating on the Mississippi Department of Education accountability scale, the board of trustees opted to let Superintendent Philip Hickman's contract expire at the end of June 2018. 

 

Hickman came to CMSD in July 2014 with a four-year contract, and his tenure has been rife with scandal -- from a botched attempt to hire his wife's uncle to an administrative position without disclosing the relationship to deficiencies in the special education program that sparked a MDE investigation. 

 

While graduation rates rose during Hickman's tenure, the district couldn't shake its D rating, and by a 3-2 vote in November the board decided to begin the search for a new superintendent. This followed a May vote by the same margin to delay extending Hickman's contract, a move that signaled the potential his contract might not be renewed. 

 

 

 

Jared Booth 

 

A Columbus Police Department officer is being investigated in the shooting death of a Columbus man outside a Southside nightclub early Nov. 4. 

 

City leaders, however, are certain the officer, Jared Booth, acted according to CPD policy. 

 

Booth responded to a disturbance call at the Premier Lounge on 22nd Street South just after midnight as the club was closing and a large crowd was leaving. Though neither the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, who is leading the probe, nor the city have released Booth's body camera footage, city leaders said it shows Booth approaching three men fighting over a gun and the officer yelling for them to "Get ... down!" Two men let go, and the third man, identified as 24-year-old Raymond Davis, spun around with the gun pointed in Booth's general direction. 

 

Booth then shot Davis, who was pronounced dead about an hour later at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle. 

 

 

 

Early closing times 

 

The city, in the name of consistency, was compelled to restrict one of its own properties in the same way it had dealt with three private businesses. 

 

First, there was a shooting outside The Princess Theater nightclub in downtown Columbus in March that damaged some vehicles parked nearby. Two days later, a shooting inside the O-Kay Foods convenience store on Seventh Avenue North injured two. 

 

In response, city officials worked with those business owners to agree to earlier closing times -- for The Princess 10 p.m. and for O-Kay Foods 5 p.m. -- for up to six months while better security protocols were implemented. The business owners cooperated under threat the council would otherwise forcibly require the measures. 

 

After a Columbus police officer shot a local man dead across the street from the Premier Lounge on Nov. 4 -- while the officer was responding to a disturbance call reported as a large crowd was leaving the club just after midnight -- the city forced the club to close at 10 p.m. for up to six months. 

 

On Thanksgiving, following a fatal shooting outside Trotter Convention Center as a large crowd was leaving a party booked at the city owned facility, the city council implemented an 11 p.m. closing time there and voted to install surveillance cameras inside the Trotter and along Fifth Street. 

 

 

 

Jail breakout 

 

An accused armed robber remains at large after he broke out of Lowndes County Adult Detention Center on Sept. 2. 

 

Delvin Moore, 29, had been arrested the day before for allegedly robbing a Sprint Mart at Highway 69 and Yorkville Road in Columbus, and city officials said he is a suspect in several other reported armed robberies over the past year. 

 

Jail officials said he jammed toilet paper into the lock of his temporary holding cell to keep it from latching, then later exited the cell, ran past the guards and escaped through the front door of the jail facility. 

 

Sheriff Mike Arledge disciplined nine jail employees on duty that night. Jail Administrator Rick Jones retired shortly after, though neither he nor county leaders would confirm on the record if the jailbreak contributed to that decision. 

 

The U.S. Marshal's Task Force, city of Columbus and District Attorney Scott Colom's office have all chipped in to offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to Moore's capture. 

 

 

 

Keith Dowd 

 

Publicly released body camera footage of Columbus patrol officer Keith Dowd harassing a black man on a traffic stop in August led to Dowd resigning a month later to avoid termination. 

 

The Dispatch obtained the body camera footage through a public records request. It shows Dowd, who is white, pulling over 20-year-old Joshua Hibbler for speeding. During the 13-minute incident, Dowd claims Hibbler was driving twice the speed limit -- although the officer's patrol unit wasn't equipped with radar -- and accuses him in a raised voice of smoking weed and lying. At one point, Dowd tells Hibbler to keep his hands still on the steering wheel or he could "empty a magazine (from his service weapon)" into the car. 

 

Hibbler maintained his composure throughout the ordeal, and Dowd ultimately released him with only a warning. 

 

Initially, Police Chief Oscar Lewis issued Dowd a written reprimand for the incident and prescribed training courses in bettering the officer's communication skills. But once Mayor Robert Smith found out about the incident weeks later, he launched an investigation and condemned Dowd's actions as worthy of termination. 

 

On Sept. 15, days before his scheduled termination hearing before the city council, Dowd resigned. 

 

 

 

Caledonia city elections 

 

Caledonia got a new mayor this year, but it took two elections to accomplish. 

 

Mitch Wiggins ultimately beat incumbent Bill Lawrence by one vote in a July 18 redo for the seat that should have been decided on June 6. 

 

Election commissioners, however, threw out the first round of ballots after three counts produced three different results. Also, the commission chairman resigned in the process after admitting he had left the unsealed ballot box in his vehicle overnight after the first election. 

 

Another commissioner stepped down between the two elections because she is Wiggins' aunt. 

 

 

 

Cold case murder arrest 

 

Police arrested David Murray, 52, in May and charged him with the 1996 murder of 78-year-old Mack Fowler. 

 

A DNA sample collected in the 1996 investigation matched a sample collected from a fall 2016 crime scene in Jackson that matched Murray. 

 

Murray is accused of stabbing and beating Fowler after the victim had apparently invited Murray into his home. 

 

 

 

Most viewed stories of 2017 on cdispatch.com 

 

■ Arrest made in Jack's restaurant case - 1/24/2017 - 223,255 views - Dispatch Staff Report. Alleged food contamination sparks investigations - 1/12/2017 - 45,857 views - Slim Smith 

 

■ Mayor: CPD officer misused power on traffic stop - 9/12/2017 - 83,038 views - Zack Plair 

 

■ Ex-wife of clinic doctor indicted in $13M fraud - 5/11/2017 - 79,154 views - Isabelle Altman 

 

■ 'I don't know what would have happened if I had said something': Hibbler recounts terrifying traffic stop - 9/14/2017 - 50,300 views - Zack Plair 

 

■ Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Fighting 'The Big C' with vitamin C - 10/13/2017 1 - 38,045 views - Slim Smith 

 

■ Three century-old homes torn down in Starkville to make room for mixed-use development project - 6/9/2017 - 36,090 views - Devin Edgar 

 

■ West Point florist selected to help decorate White House for holidays - 10/25/2017 - 33,282 views - Devin Edgar 

 

■ One killed, 4 in hospital after Saturday night wreck - 11/4/2017 - 32,708 views - Zack Plair 

 

■ Dead bald eagle found in Columbus appears to have been shot - 2/20/2017 - 28,461 views - Alex Holloway 

 

■ Reed's of Columbus closing after 45 years - 8/9/2017 - 26,061 views - Slim Smith 

 

■ Waverley hits market with $2.9M price tag - 9/9/2017 - 24,891 views - Slim Smith 

 

■ A 'sweet soul' lost in a 'dark world': Friends remember Drew Johnson for his kindness, pitching acumen - 6/8/2017 - 22,245 views - Isabelle Altman 

 

■ Dog gives his life protecting child from rattlesnake - 8/15/2017 - 21,783 views - Birney Imes 

 

■ Human trafficking in Mississippi - 8/12/2017 - 21,608 views - Isabelle Altman 

 

■ CPD officer shoots local man during disturbance call - 11/4/2017 - 20,404 views - Isabelle Altman 

 

■ Leigh Mall in decline: LINK, city push for better strategy as 44-year-old retail staple continues to lose stores - 7/29/2017 - 18,711 views - India Yarborough 

 

■ Family remembers man of the river - 4/4/2017 - 18,161 views - Isabelle Altman 

 

■ Oak Hill student dies in swimming accident - 8/7/2017 - 17,573 views - Isabelle Altman 

 

■ Call him the bus driver: Oktoc dairy farmer fully integrated with MSU athletics through second job - 4/4/2017 - 17,482 views - Zack Plair

 

 

 

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