August 9, 2013 10:15:05 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
Mississippi State University rugby coach Randy Pannell told city officials Tuesday he's willing to pass on a proposed tournament and its projected $451,000 in economic stimulation if mayor Parker Wiseman continues to make negative comments to the media about Starkville Parks Commission Chairman Dan Moreland.
Pannells' speech highlights a growing wedge between political ideologies in Starkville. During the mayoral campaign season, then-GOP candidate Moreland crafted a succinct platform: He was pro-business, while the former administration, led by Wiseman, crafted numerous pieces of legislation -- the city's sidewalk ordinance and difficult building codes, for example - that prevented job and business growth.
Now Pannell, who openly supported Moreland's work with Starkville Parks, said he was willing to take business out of town if Wiseman, via the Dispatch specifically, again criticized the former mayoral candidate.
Pannell took to the table set aside for public comments and special presentations Tuesday and began his speech by identifying himself as MSU's rugby coach. Pannell then proceeded to say other Southeastern Conference schools have interest in hosting a tournament at the Starkville Sportsplex, but recent bickering between Wiseman and Moreland has created what he called a perception of instability in Starkville.
Montgomery, Ala., previously hosted the tournament and received approximately $451,000 in business, he said. If Starkville received that same figure from out-of-town visitors on food, beverage and hotel sales, city governance would receive only $9,020 through the 2 percent tax.
Tannell directly engaged Wiseman, laying most of the blame from past arguments at the mayor's feet.
"I have a chance here to do something good for the university's rugby team, but I'm tired of the bickering between you (Wiseman) and Dan," Pannell said. "Y'all got to get together somehow, because when I go to (the SEC) and I have to tell them what's going on here, it ain't going to look good for me. Unstable -- they're not going to like it. In fact, the alternative is to go to Tupelo to play the tournament.
"I almost pulled out today, Dan, because I'm so tired of you (Wiseman) getting on his butt for doing his job," he continued. "So here's the deal I'm going to make with you, Parker - none of you other guys (the board of aldermen) are going to count. Parker, I guarantee you if you won't say one negative thing about Dan Moreland running that Sportsplex and you keep your little paper puppet over here in line (in reference to a Dispatch reporter) - no negative comments - this $451,000 will go into this city's account, will go right here. If you can't do that, I'll take it, we'll go to Tupelo. Is that clear?"
The Dispatch timed Pannells' comments, beginning after his introduction. Speakers are allowed three minutes for public comments. He left the table at about the 2:30 mark, broke decorum and walked directly to the boardroom table, where he continued to address Wiseman.
"Parker, can you look me in the eye and tell me that you won't do any more negative comments?" Pannell asked.
Wiseman then said he didn't follow Pannell's line of questioning.
"You know exactly what I'm saying," Pannell replied while raising his voice and flailing his arms just feet from the mayor.
Wiseman again asked Pannell to maintain decorum and lower his voice. At the same time, a Starkville police officer stood from his seat and walked toward the front of the room.
"It still (doesn't) matter. You're going to have to explain to the people of Starkville why $451,000 is going to a city 60 miles north of here," Pannell said in closing before he exited the room. "You think about that, because you're going to be accountable for telling these people that half of a million dollars is going up the road."
Later during public comments, Ward 2 resident Milo Burnham alluded to Pannell's break in protocol by referencing a recent shooting at a Pennsylvania city council meeting that killed three and left three others injured.
"The attitude of what we just saw demonstrated here tonight, that needs to be kept out of here," Burnham said.
Dorothy Isaac, a Parks commissioner who spoke after Pannell, engaged Burnham after his comments. Wiseman had to gavel down that side discussion twice in order for the next public speaker to have his turn at the table.
SPC's overall budget increased under previous administration
The rugby coach's comments come after a budget meeting row between Wiseman and Moreland last week. The Dispatch reported comments made by the pair during the open session, not those specifically given to the media at a later point.
In that meeting, Moreland presented a budget proposal which increased SPC's general operating line item by about 2 mills, partly due to Parks' increased electric expenditures. Moreland said he would ask the city to help pay its bills if the department's operating budget was not increased.
The former mayoral candidate also alluded to a perceived anti-Parks stance by the previous board of aldermen and told the city's audit and budget committee that budget cuts enacted by the prior board created SPC's financial situation.
A copy of the budget proposal shows Parks is requesting $1.18 million - an increase of $334,000 from the previous fiscal year - for its general fund. It listed a proposed $275,000 line item request for utilities compared to the $195,000 SPC was budgeted for the same expense last fiscal year.
In that meeting, Moreland told aldermen that SPC's monthly operating budget had been cut over the past years from $76,000 to $70,000. Wiseman engaged Moreland's claim, saying the city's past three years of general contributions remained flat at $844,400 per year.
Documents obtained by the Dispatch show Parks' general operating fund remained level at $909,405 in 2008-2010, then dropped to $844,400 from 2011-2013. Since 2008, SPC's park improvement fund has more than doubled from $70,000 to $180,000 annually.
The previous administration increased Parks' overall budget - a combination of the general fund and the parks improvement line item - from 2008's $979,405 to last year's $1.02 million. Monies from the improvement fund are not allowed for bill payments.
SPC's financial woes became an election issue this cycle after its previous fiscal year audit revealed numerous budgeting concerns. Documents associated with a June internal city report stated procedural gaps exist with the entities' electricity payments, and accounts were shown to be beyond the 45-day legal payment window.
The Dispatch reported in May that SPC was estimated to owe $180,000 for overdue fees and forecasted usage through September. The report also charted the department's exhausted FY 2013 2 percent food and beverage allocations for park improvements. In May, $12.35 remained in that budget for the fiscal year.
Residents continue hammering aldermen over transparency
Although aldermen have moved into their second month of governance, residents continued hammering the board Tuesday for its most prominent July action: the removal of former chief administrative officer Lynn Spruill from her post.
Four aldermen - Lisa Wynn, David Little, Roy A. Perkins and Henry Vaughn - supported Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver's motion to not reappoint Spruill and have her immediately clean out her office. Those same aldermen went on to overturn Wiseman's veto of the matter.
Residents railed on aldermen for almost an hour before the board overturned the July veto, and continued chastising the board Tuesday for a perceived lack of transparency and a failure by many to respond to public questions.
The board held no public or closed-door discussions about the personnel move aside from Carver's admission that he had made his mind up years ago and prayed on the matter. The Ward 1 alderman was absent from Tuesday's meeting.
Numerous residents noted in July that some aldermen who supported Spruill's ousting did not return their phone calls or emails in regard to the motion.
One Ward 5 resident, whom the Dispatch could not identify from a recording of the meeting, recounted previous complaints.
"I wrote to all of you, and I appreciate those of you who responded. Sometimes it was 'Thank you;' sometimes it was 'I'll think about it.' I hope you will answer to your constituents. We just heard Mr. Perkins talk in length about what people in his ward have talked to him about," she said. "I wish that some of the other people could talk about the way they felt about Lynn Spruill."
Another resident, Ward 5's Jim Gafford, pressed aldermen to "openly discuss and articulate (their) rationale for any and every decision" the board makes in the future. He asked them to consider how to restore the integrity they "in these short, few weeks have managed to annihilate."
"Your recent actions are merely symptoms of troubling issues," he said. "You've managed to destroy any sense of credibility and respect for our local government, and merely claiming divine authority is a shallow, cowardly and dangerous act."
An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the rugby coach's name as Pounders.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch