October 16, 2013 10:23:33 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
The Columbus City Council approved plans for a Dec. 5 strategic planning retreat to be held at the Plymouth Bluff Center.
Phil Hardwick, project manager at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development at Mississippi State University, will facilitate the retreat. Between his fees and rental of the facility for one day, the retreat will cost $1,500.
The item was not listed on the meeting agenda. When councilman Kabir Karriem asked where the item was, chief operations officer David Armstrong and Smith replied it was under the general comments item for comments from the mayor and councilmen.
The vote was 4-1 with councilman Bill Gavin opposed. Councilman Joseph Mickens was absent for Tuesday's meeting. Mayor Robert Smith noted at the beginning of the meeting that Mickens would be away for six to eight weeks to recover from a recent operation.
Gavin, an instructor at East Mississippi Community College, questioned the $1,200 fee for Hardwick's services, breaking it down to $150 an hour for nine hours and adding that Hardwick was "just coming from Starkville."
"It doesn't make a difference if he was in Columbus. As an educator, I'm quite sure you know nothing's free," Smith replied. "Besides that, I think each councilman or I will have an opportunity to tour your ward during the workshop. That's where you will plan for the next four years what you would like to see happen in your ward."
Gavin argued the fee was still too steep.
"Every so often we have someone come in and do a study for us, it costs us money and we don't have the money to implement the study," he said.
More discussion followed before Smith said he would provide Gavin with Hardwick's contact information for the two to discuss specifics of the strategic plan. Councilman Charlie Box then spoke in support of Hardwick's long-term background in economic development before the vote was taken.
"He's one of the foremost people in this field in the state of Mississippi. I just honestly believe we'll get our money's worth from him," Box said. "He'll help us to understand perhaps where we've been, bring us forward and take a look at where we need to go. I think he'll help us to bring our thinking together in a way that would be best for the city. I understand it's a lot of money ... but I think Mr. Hardwick is going to bring something to the table, Mr. Gavin, that you're going to really be happy with."
Columbus resident Berry Hinds questioned the non-placement of the retreat on the agenda.
"They didn't follow the policy they established just recently about their agenda," he said. "If you set a policy, you've got to go by it."
Berry's reimbursement request denied
The council also voted down city planner Christina Berry's educational leave request for reimbursement of transportation and meal expenses for a meeting in Illinois because it was degree-driven and not course-driven. The item stated the conference was part of a field work requirement for Berry to complete a real estate development master's degree from Auburn University. The request did not include reimbursement for lodging or registration.
In her travel request application, Berry estimated the cost of the three-day trip would be $465. The matter was moved from consent agenda to the policy agenda. The city has a continuing educational reimbursement policy in place stating educational courses city employees request should be directly related to their jobs and not for satisfying degree requirements. It also states employees attend courses in off-duty time with no city employment involved.
Gavin noted Berry's business was for a personal degree. Berry said she was not asking for the coursework to be reimbursed and her benefit would also be the city's benefit as some of conference seminars related to projects she was working on.
Armstrong said his recommendation to the council was not to approve the request.
"Mrs. Berry never consulted me about this. Had she consulted me I would have said no. It's totally contrary to our policy," Armstrong said. "We turned down these in the past (due to the policy). If ya'll agree with this today, I want you to understand you're opening a can of worms because if we approve this ... you can't say 'yea' to one and 'no' to the rest."
Berry contended that the policy had become outdated, adding that if the city amended its policy others besides her would benefit, as would the city.
If others before her had been denied reimbursement for degree-driven programs, it was "a sign that other people are looking for an opportunity to advance themselves.
"If you want to continue to grow and you want to continue to attract talent, then you may want to look at your policy and consider that," she added.
The vote on Armstrong's recommendation was 3-2 with Karriem and councilman Marty Turner opposed.
In other business, the board:
■ Re-appointed Larry Fuller and MacArthur Inge to the city planning commission and appointed Chuck Bigelow to fill three vacancies. Incumbent Wayne West and Alan Little also applied, but the council voted on the former three first. The vote was 4-1 on each appointment, with Turner in opposition to Bigelow and Fuller's appointment and Box opposed to Inge's;
■ Accepted office support clerk Crystal Rutherford's resignation effective Oct. 18 and;
■ Approved requests from eight firefighters to attend educational courses.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.