Our opinion: Land deal exposes Columbus' good ol' boy system

October 30, 2010 10:43:00 PM



Columbus Light and Water''s deal with a local developer to pay $996,000 for 118 acres, on which it plans to spread treated sewage, is smellier than we thought. 


The offer has exposed the "good ol'' boy" system that seems to rule Columbus. 


The CL&W board member who pushed the hardest for the land deal, David Shelton, has business ties with Russell Sheffield, who owns the land near Pickensville Road and Shady Lane. Shelton first tried to get the board to buy the land for $1.18 million in September, then garnered the votes to do the deal for $996,000 this month. 


Sheffield agreed -- who wouldn''t agree to sell rural farm land in Lowndes County for $8,440 an acre? The sale is conditional on Sheffield landing permits required by the state Department of Environmental Quality. 


The CL&W board is obviously paying too much for the land, which had a low appraisal of $500,000, and a ridiculously high one of $1.8 million. 


It appears Sheffield has been able to strike cheaper deals with board member Shelton. Chancery Court records show Sheffield purchased lots on Sixth Street North, and two lots from his son, Justin Shelton, at 17th Street North and Seventh Street North, for $10 each. 


Sheffield and Shelton have done other business together. Sheffield Construction handled the renovation of the new Renasant Bank location downtown on Main Street, a building David Shelton owns. 


The much cheaper piece of land the CL&W board also considered -- $450,000 for 115 acres owned by Ronnie and Donna West of West Brothers Construction -- also had a board connection. Board member Tom Sneed, who voted against the Sheffield offer, recently worked for West Brothers Construction, though not directly for Ronnie and Donna West. 


The light and water board''s attorney, Jeff Smith (who has done legal work for the Sheltons and represented Russell Sheffield in his divorce) says that what is happening here is completely ethical, and Shelton and Sneed didn''t need to recuse themselves from voting on this land deal.  


We think the appearance of impropriety is glaring. Maybe no ethics laws were breached, but we think it''s obvious that this is a sweetheart deal between friends, with you, us, and all the other customers of CL&W and taxpayers of Columbus footing the bill. 


Add all that to the fact that there should be no rush here. The city''s waste storage needs are covered for the next 20 years. CL&W recently raised the levees on its three storage lagoons just south of Columbus, at a cost of $368,000, to handle sewage storage. 


At least the permitting process will last another year or so, according to attorney Smith. The process will include public hearings -- we imagine the neighborhood and church near the property will have opinions about their new neighbor, the sludge farm.  


We urge the public to take a good, hard look at what is happening here. This whole deal really stinks.