LENA MITCHELL: Public officials have no business trying to keep secrets

By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal Corinth Bureau

I wrote last month about bullying, and within the past month have seen at play a behavior closely related to bullying: abuse of power.
Recent actions of some government officials in Alcorn County and Corinth did not violate the letter of Mississippi’s open meeting laws, but their deliberate behaviors to meet without public scrutiny in secret in my mind constitute an abuse of the power voters vested in them.
The open meetings law requires that whenever a quorum of a body of elected officials plans to meet, at least three hours’ notice must be given of the time and place for such meeting and it must be open to the public.
In late August the community learned that two members of the Alcorn County Board of Supervisors, which has five members, and two members of the Corinth Board of Aldermen, which has six members, had been meeting for a number of weeks to craft a plan that would redirect hundreds of thousands of dollars from one agency to another, namely from the Corinth Area Convention and Visitors Bureau/Corinth Tourism Council to the Crossroads Arena, a city-county jointly owned facility.
Both of these agencies are supported by a 2 percent tourism tax on prepared foods and hotel stays, each receiving 1 percent of the tax. At the heart of the move was a plan to create new revenue through an expansion of Crossroads Regional Park, jointly city-county owned.
A master plan for Corinth’s park facilities was developed years ago to expand the park and create a sportsplex that would attract large tournaments.
Working with other community supporters of the idea, these two county and two city officials met for weeks with engineers to scale down that master plan and use the bond on the arena to pay for improvements. The bond is due to be paid off in 2017, and the group’s idea is to leverage $4.5-$5 million of available arena bond funding.
It may not be a bad plan.
But these public officials decided that not only was the public not to be told the issues, but even their own colleagues on their boards could not be trusted with information.
As the Sept. 15 deadline approached for both boards to adopt their budgets, they told other board members the reasons they should support diverting CVB budget funds. The boards then demanded the CVB change its budget as requested, “or else.”
“Or else” came Sept. 24, when during a joint meeting of the Alcorn County and city of Corinth boards, the two groups voted to take $250,000 of the Corinth Area CVB’s $567,000 budget request and designate it for the Crossroads Arena.
Those two supervisors and two city aldermen got what they wanted, but three city board members voted against them, feeling they had not been fully informed. Now the question is how soon their plans can be converted to reality.
Questions remain as to whether they can, in fact, attract the tournaments; what revenues the tournaments would yield; whether tourism work that has helped bring in more than $1 million per year the past two years will be reversed by severely cutting tourism’s budget.
Officials have been unable or unwilling to respond to any of these questions during the recent contentious budget discussions, but open public discussion might have pried loose some of these answers.
Lena Mitchell is the Daily Journal Corinth Bureau reporter and writes a Sunday column each month. Contact her at lena.mitchell@journalinc.com.