Council OKs street upgrades, hiring policy

April 17, 2013 9:53:01 AM

Nathan Gregory - [email protected]


The Columbus City Council unanimously approved contributing funds for two road projects during their meeting Tuesday. 


Lowndes County Port Authority Director John Hardy informed council members that the group applied for a grant from the Mississippi Department of Transportation for $330,000 to double the radius of a curve on Port Access Road and smooth a curve he said has been the subject of a safety issue with traffic from Baldor and KiOR employees. 


"I think we've had about two log trucks turn over in that curve in the last year or so, so we've got to do something to try to improve that," Hardy said. 


Neel-Schaffer provided a $335,797.36 estimate to increase the radius of the curve from 250 to 500 feet. If approved, the MDOT grant would cover a large portion of that cost. The council approved Hardy's request to fund up to 10 percent, or $33,500. Hardy said he should know by the end of May if LCPA is extended the grant. 


MDOT has also agreed to fund and repair the intersection of Mississippi Highway 50 and West Lehmberg Road, a state right-of-way, for approximately $40,000. The city will use approximately $50,000 either from its general budget or reserve fund to fix the intersection of Lehmberg and West Lehmberg.  


The request to do those projects was brought to the council by Mayor Robert Smith. 


Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem asked which ward the proposed project was in. When told it was in Ward 3, he said he would make a motion to approve the project on the condition that his ward receives fair and similar treatment in the future. 


"I'm not concerned about the ward," Smith said. "I'm concerned about the horrible condition of that intersection there. If any of the councilmen want to look at the letters I received (stating work needed to be done on the road), they were some nasty letters." 




Prayer banners lead to dispute 


Confusion over phone conversations between Smith, building official Kenny Wiegel and Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box led to a heated discussion after Smith accused Box of making false statements about the placement of National Day Of Prayer banners in city and state rights-of-way. 


Wiegel explained to the council that an ordinance had been adopted in 2007 prohibiting posting banners and political signs in city rights-of-way without obtaining a permit through the building department or a successful appeal to the city's zoning board. Box came to him requesting to apply for a permit and he said he was unable to grant a permit under that statute. 


"I spoke to the mayor about this the following evening ... I advised him of what I just advised (the council) of. We did not discuss permitting. I believe the mayor asked me what our ordinance said. I told him the ordinance said no signs could be permitted within the right of way," Wiegel said. "There is an appeal process ... That was not done. At no time did the mayor actually discuss not issuing a permit. We just discussed what the sign ordinance said." 


"So did I instruct you at any time that I was going to say not to issue a permit to Mr. Box or any committee?" Smith asked Wiegel. 


"No," Wiegel said. "I actually was the one who mentioned permitting because of the conversation councilman Box and I had previously about the fact that I was unable to issue a permit." 


Smith then asked Box if Wiegel told him that the mayor instructed him not to allow the committee to display the banners. 


"That's exactly what I said. Mr. Wiegel, that's what you told me. You told me that the mayor told you that we couldn't put the banners up. You also told me there was an ordinance, which I knew there was an ordinance. I came down there to get a permit," Box said. "You told me that the mayor said, 'What does the ordinance say?' You told him and he said they're not putting them up. If Mr. Box wants to put the banners up, he can appeal it to the city council. I talked to the committee and the committee said they didn't want to get into that. We went to the county and the county put the banners up for us. We didn't make any comment trying to disparage the mayor. We just said that's what we were told, exactly what you told us." 


Smith reminded Box he did not have any authority over the banner placement. 


"So why would I tell Mr. Wiegel that you or any committee couldn't put a banner up? That would have to come before the mayor and city council," Smith said. 


"Did you not tell me exactly what I said just then?" Box asked Wiegel. "I talked to you about this two or three times and you reiterated it was exactly like you said it but you're changing streams right now." 


"With all due respect, I never did tell you that he instructed me not to issue a permit," Wiegel said. 


"I know that. I didn't say a permit," Box said. "He said they're not going to put the banners up. Is that what he said?" 


"After us discussing the ordinance, that is correct," Wiegel replied. 


Box clarified that if the committee wanted to appeal, that would have to take place before the zoning board and not the city council, but that would not happen. 


"I also ... went to the mayor Monday and asked him to take this off the agenda because we did not want any type of controversy over this. That's why we went to the county and had the banners put up," Box said. "I asked him simply to just take it off because we didn't want this brought up. We didn't even want to bring this up because we had already taken care of it, and that's the way I understand it. 


"I'm sorry if there was a misunderstanding because this is a committee that's trying to do good work." 


"And I applaud the committee, but I don't want you out there making false statements where I said I didn't want the banner up," Smith said. "I ... asked what the ordinance said and (Wiegel) told me what the ordinance was and I told (him) the only way there could be change is ... that it has to go through the mayor and the city council." 


Smith also asked city engineer Kevin Stafford to confirm that other areas where Box proposed placing banners were under MDOT jurisdiction and not the city's, necessitating a permit from the state. 


"So it's not a Robert Smith ordinance that we have. It was the mayor and city council that adopted it," Smith said. "I would hope in the future ... if there is an issue of concern with a department head or whoever the case may be, I would hope that we can discuss this rather than going out and making statements to where the mayor said this and the mayor said that." 


Box said he took exception to that accusation. 


"I told you when I came and asked you to take this off. You asked me why I wasn't man enough to come to you and bring this issue to you," Box said. "I told you it's a building department issue. I was supposed to go to the building department to get the permit, not you. I went exactly where I was supposed to." 


"How could I stop someone from displaying a banner? I don't have the authority," Smith said. 


"I know that," Box said. "You're the one that's making an issue out of it." 


"I'm not making an issue out of it. I just do not appreciate you going out there making false accusations," Smith said. 


"I have not made false accusations against you and I'm tired of you saying that," Box said. "You keep saying it." 


"I'm not going to argue with you," Smith replied. 


"Well it seems to me that you want to argue," Box said. "That's why you brought it up here tonight is to argue with me." 


"I brought it up here for clarity," Smith said. 


"Well, you got your clarity, so why don't you move on?" Box asked. 


"I think I control meetings," Smith replied. 


In other business, the board voted 5-1 in favor of approving a new screening process for considering convicted felons for city jobs. Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin cast the only opposing vote. The city previously had a no-felon hire policy. 


Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.