By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
Delbert Hosemann picked the right park bench to film his popular secretary of state television campaign ad.
Had he sat next to Gulfport City Councilman Ricky Dombrowski instead of “Dorothy” – the fawning older woman in the spot – you wouldn’t have heard the same glowing assessment of his first term.
“He thinks he’s holier than thou because he’s sitting on a park bench with a couple of old ladies,” said Dombrowski, who is Hosemann’s sole opponent in the Aug. 2 Republican primary. But what “you come to find is a trail of abuse; the abuse of his position to circumvent the power whenever he can.”
Gulf Coast residents know Dombrowski as a longtime municipal leader and business owner, but he’s relatively unheard of in Northeast Mississippi or elsewhere in the state. The conservative Republican said he lacks the resources to promote himself as effectively as the man he hopes to beat.
No Democrat qualified for the race, so the Republican nominee will face only a Reform Party candidate in the November general election.
It’s a race Dombrowski hadn’t plan to run. He entered on the qualifying deadline – March 1 – after what he says was a particularly frustrating encounter with Hosemann over who owns Mississippi’s harbors.
Dombrowski and some other coastal officials claim the municipalities own the waters and cite a 1935 law as proof. Hosemann said the state does – and more specifically, the secretary of state has jurisdiction – and cites a 1989 law as proof. Several cities already have signed leases with his office, but Gulfport balked.
The case now is going to court.
“There are two critical components,” Hosemann said. The harbors must be public, and all gaming revenues go to the tideland funds. When I went to Gulfport, they had condos projected to sell on the harbor. I told the mayor that was public land, and that was a non-public purpose.”
Hosemann said the state doesn’t charge for the leases. They’re simply a matter of protocol and give the secretary of state oversight to protect against violations of the law – such as privatizing public lands.
“It’s our harbor in Tupelo as much as it is in Pass Christian,” Hosemann said. “You need the ability to have access to it. To restrict it by the decision of the City Council of Gulfport and exclude everyone else” isn’t right.
Dombrowski said a fine line exists between public and private use, and he supports light development of harbor condos because anyone could choose to rent or own a unit, thereby making it public.
He also disputed Hosemann’s claim that leases would cost the cities nothing. Dombrowski said the secretary initially wanted money for the transaction and even proposed a 30 percent tax on all revenues collected by cities from harbor business leases. That proposal since has faded.
“He wants complete authority over what we have in our harbors,” said Dombrowski, who claims Hosemann has overstepped his authority on other matters as well.
The 51-year-old councilman blasted the secretary for “hijacking” the state’s 16th Section lands, which he claims has jeopardized profits meant to help school children.
Hosemann did overhaul Mississippi’s 16th Section land process, whereby school districts that own lands can develop or lease them and funnel the profits into their operations. The secretary now personally reviews and signs each lease before it goes into effect – a change he claims helped generate an additional $26 million in revenue for school districts statewide.
“I started rejecting 8 to 10 percent of them because they weren’t fair,” Hosemann said of the leases. “Now it’s a 5 percent rejection rate. It has resulted in a 60-70 percent jump in revenue.”
In all, districts earn about $80 million annually from the lands.
But Dombrowski said the move interferes with each district’s ability to manage its own lands and decide how to best develop them. He also said it adds months to the process and could imperil an otherwise good business deal.
If he’s elected, Dombrowski said he’ll return the secretary of state’s office to running elections and supporting businesses.
“I’ll do the job that is specific to the secretary of state, and not overreach the authorities already laid out by law,” said Dombrowski, who had never previously sought statewide office.
Hosemann, 64, is now finishing his first term. When he ran four years ago, he had promised to push for voter ID, improve the voting process, rewrite outdated business laws and better manage public lands.
“And that’s what I did,” he said.
He touted his efforts to get voter ID on this November’s ballot, his decision to dispatch dozens of staff members to the polls at election time and create what he says are some of the country’s most progressive business laws. He also reduced his agency’s annual budget by $1.3 million since he entered office.
That’s about the same amount his opponent’s city spent on an annexation case to benefit a private developer, Hosemann said, referring to Gulfport’s battle with Biloxi over a strip of unincorpoated land.
He hinted Dombrowski helped waste taxpayer money.
Gulfport had tried to annex the area at the request of a private developer after a similar request to Biloxi had been denied. But Biloxi opposed Gulfport’s move because it bumped against its own growth path. Dombrowski said the case began during his term out of office, and that it started as the kind of “friendly annexation” common in cities where developments pop up just outside the border.
“We have been approached by numerous developers in the past that want to be in the city limits to get the water and sewer and other benefits,” Dombrowski said. “Numerous ones before passed without any opposition whatsoever.”
He admits the situation spun slightly out of control but denies the city wasted money or acted irresponsibly.
Dombrowski said he’s interested only in protecting citizens’ rights and making it easier to do business in Mississippi.
Ditto for Hosemann.