April 10, 2019 10:43:17 AM
A Columbus councilman appears to have paid a discounted rate to rent a Trotter Convention Center space in December and was almost allowed to pay half-price for another to hold his May wedding, an apparent violation of city policy.
Fred Jackson, Ward 4, paid $300 to rent Regal Hall -- the smallest of the city-owned event spaces downtown under the Trotter umbrella -- for an event on Sunday, Dec. 9, according to a rental agreement and receipt The Dispatch inspected on Tuesday.
Trotter Director Rogena Bonner told The Dispatch $300 is the Monday-Thursday rate for Regal Hall, while the Friday-Sunday rate is $500.
Other records The Dispatch inspected show an altered rental agreement for Jackson's May 11 wedding in the Trotter's upper level. It appears the original agreement was for Jackson to only pay half-price -- $625 -- for the space, with an additional $150 cleaning fee. However, the $625 is marked through and $1,400 written above it, along with the letters "RA." The change was not dated.
So far, the records show, Jackson has only paid a $200 deposit for the space.
Bonner said the $1,400 was the full-price combined total of the booking and cleaning fees for a weekend event.
The Dispatch inspected the records as part of a Mississippi Public Records Act request submitted on March 26. The newspaper submitted the request after receiving an anonymous letter alleging Jackson was hosting personal events at Trotter for free.
Jackson, serving his first term on the council, reserved the Regal Hall event on Nov. 26 and the wedding on Jan. 18, both before former Trotter Director Mike Anderson retired. Since the bookings predate Bonner, who started in March, she said she didn't know anything about them, including why or when the booking fee for Jackson's wedding was changed.
Speaking to The Dispatch Tuesday evening, Jackson would not comment on what he paid for the Trotter spaces.
Jackson said the event at Regal Hall was a graduation party he hosted with his family after he received his master's degree. He further accused The Dispatch of attempting to cast a negative light on his positive achievements.
"You're trying to scrutinize my name," the councilman said. "These are two decent occasions. ... If you want to call and congratulate me for getting my master's and getting married, then we can talk. Otherwise, I have no (further) comment."
By policy, government agencies can use Trotter spaces for a free or reduced rate for official activities, City Attorney Jeff Turnage said. Other than that, he believes the policy may give discretion for offering reduced rates to nonprofits to which the city directly appropriates funds, such as Main Street Columbus and the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Turnage said there is "nothing that I know of" in city policy that would allow a private event, such as a graduation party or wedding, a discount at the Trotter.
Mayor Robert Smith said in a text other organizations, such as Junior Auxiliary and WCBI (Bridal Showcase), have received discounts for events.
The Dispatch also sent screenshots of Jackson's rental agreements to Smith, and specifically asked why the councilman was given discounted rates, as well as when and why the booking fee for the wedding was changed.
He responded to the texts but did not answer any of those questions.
"It's my understanding that Councilman Jackson is paying full price for his wedding, which is $1,400," the text reads.
Publisher's note: Dispatch Managing Editor Zack Plair was involved in an incident that resulted in a police report at the Trotter's administrative office Tuesday in the course of reporting this story. This story has been edited by Dispatch news editor Isabelle Altman and publisher Peter Imes. Details of the incident will be reported in a separate story.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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