By Bill Minor
JACKSON – First-term Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, already in hot water with school boards for attempting to micro manage 16th Section school land leases, is now accused by Gulf Coast officials of “over-stepping his bounds” by proclaiming control of coastal city harbors. His latest power play has garnered him a formidable opponent in the Republican primary.
School boards had complained to state lawmakers that Hosemann’s dabbling in small details of 16th Section school land leases was crippling their ability to manage the school land trust. Reforms enacted 30 years ago that changed control of the school lands from county boards of supervisors to school boards has dramatically increased the amount of revenues for schools.
The Mississippi House passed a bill to clarify a 1978 state law and confine Hosemann’s power merely to signing off on leases negotiated by school boards. However, the measure died in the Senate.
But when Hosemann began to push his authority over tidelands under a 1989 tideland trust fund law and require detailed leases controlling harbors owned by Gulf Coast cities, he stirred up a hornet’s nest that now could derail his smooth-sailing reelection.
On March 1, when the qualifying deadline arrived for candidates running for state elective offices, it appeared Hosemann would be unopposed for the GOP nomination and home free for reelection since no Democrat was running.
Things changed, however, after Ricky Dombrowski, president of the Gulfport city council, showed up at Hosemann’s office in Jackson to confront him one more time over terms in his proposed lease to take over Gulfport’s small craft harbor and boat slips.
Hosemann was unrelenting, so Dombrowski promptly headed straight for state Republican Party headquarters and put his name on the ballot for secretary of state. “We were getting nowhere, so I felt the best way to get his attention was to run against him,” the Gulfport city official told me in a telephone interview.
The four-term Gulfport councilman said he believed Hosemann’s attitude “is more about power and influence to make a name for himself in order to run for (U.S. Sen.) Thad Cochran’s seat when he steps down.” Hosemann told a television station Dombrowski’s remarks were “inflammatory.”
Dombrowski said that the entire Gulfport City Council were behind his move. Most of them, including Mayor George Schloegal showed up for Dombrowski’s formal announcement of his candidacy on March 2 at the harbor. (Not at issue is the state Port of Gulfport which is clearly state owned.)
As Dombrowski pointed out, each Gulf Coast city owns its harbor, adding that no secretary of state has challenged their ownership before. “We will not be pressured by Delbert Hoseman to sign a lease on a harbor that locals have maintained and operated for decades.”
Hosemann has maintained that the harbors are state-owned tidelands, which gives him the power to lease them and decide what improvements the city can make. The Hosemann contention, Dombrowski continued, “means he would decide what restaurants or bait shops can be located on the harbor. That’s something we’re better suited to decide.”
Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway weighed in with comments that strongly backed Dombrowski’s stance on Hosemann’s attempted Coast cities harbor coup. “That’s just not right,” the Biloxi mayor said about Hosemann’s move. “He’s overstepping his bounds,” Holloway added.
Meantime last week, a proposed resolution reasserting ownership and management of harbors in Gulf Coast cities was being circulated in the Mississippi House.
Terms of Hosemann’s proposed leases would give the secretary of state power to approve all subleases with businesses and he would have to approve any planned improvements at the city harbor and boat-slips. His proposal calls for leasing the harbor at Gulfport and surrounding area totaling some 55 acres. Hosemann’s office would receive 30 percent of the sublease revenue from harbor businesses and the city would keep 70 percent of commercial rent.
The 1989 tidelands’ act provided that rental money from leases of state-owned water bottoms along the coast go into a fund that is split between the three coastal counties.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.