Meridian Star

Local News

September 11, 2013

County bond issue goes to court

MERIDIAN — Those for and against a $14 million bond issue will have to wait several days before knowing whether it will move forward.

    In a bond validation hearing on Tuesday, Chancellor Lawrence Primeaux said he will study all of the court filings for the next several days before deciding whether to validate the bonds, which is a necessary legal step. Officials have said the purpose of the bond issue is to fund recreational projects and improvements to the county courthouse, although it contains language that it could also fund roads and fire protection projects.

    Bond counsel attorneys Tommie Cardin and Parker Berry of Butler, Snow, O'Mara Stevens, and Cannada  represented the county. Stephen Wilson represented clients who oppose the bond issue and want the county to call for an election on it. Tommy Williams, who is not an attorney, represented himself as an opponent of the bond issue.

    At issue is whether county officials prepared the bond issue documents correctly and legally. Throughout the proceedings, Primeaux reminded those in court that the issue at hand was not to question the judgment of the Board of Supervisors in passing the bond issue, but to determine if the legal process was followed correctly.

    According to the state's bond attorney, everything was done properly. Spence Flatgard has been the state's bond attorney since 2004, he said in testimony. His job is to make sure that each bond issue "strictly conforms to the law," he said.

    Wilson contends that a petition drive rejected by the Board of Supervisors should have been accepted, even though the required number of valid signatures were not procured by the deadline set by the board.

    On April 1, the Board passed a notice of intent to pass the bond issue and set May 6 as the deadline to receive a petition calling for an election. At the time, there were more than 1,500 signatures, but some were later found to be invalid. Petitioners continued collecting signatures and later took them to the Board, which in a 3-2 vote, decided against including them in the final count.

    Attorneys representing the county cited a 1961 case in Choctaw County in which petitioners continued to gather names after a deadline but ultimately lost their case in court.

    Wilson said this doesn't apply in Lauderdale County's case. In that case, the Board of Supervisors immediately began canvassing petitioners to determine if signatures were valid, Wilson said.

    "In this instance, the Lauderdale Board did not begin to even look at it on the date of the deadline," Wilson said after court on Tuesday. "They waited an additional two weeks before they sent them to (Circuit Clerk) Donna Jill Johnson's office to certify, which she did in short order. The difference is that the deadline was not stuck to by the Lauderdale Board whereas, 50 years ago, even doing it by hand, they at least began doing it diligently. Those are the main factual differences in the cases."

    Williams' objections took a different approach, with him questioning, among other issues, whether the Board of Supervisors openly discussed the possibility of a bond issue before the April 1 meeting where the intent resolution passed 3-2. Those voting in favor of the bond issue were District One Supervisor Hank Florey, District Three Supervisor Josh Todd, and District Four Supervisor Joe Norwood. Voting against were District Two Supervisor Wayman Newell and District Five Supervisor Kyle Rutledge.

    Opposing counsel offered several objections to Williams' questions, many of which were sustained by Primeaux, who emphasized that the purpose of the hearing was to determine whether the law had been followed in passing the bond issue. Williams mentioned a Freedom of Information Act request that he said had gone unanswered from county officials in which he sought information on the specific costs and plans for the proposed projects. He also brought up two leases, one between the county and the Clarkdale Community Recreation Association Inc.; and another with the West Lauderdale Youth Association.

    Both organizations have deeded land to the county, which in turn has leased it back to them so recreational facilities can be built on the properties. Those issues are not relevant to the bond validation hearing, Primeaux said.

    "You are asking me to put myself in the role of the Board of Supervisors and second guess their decision-making process," Primeaux said. "I might have done something completely, entirely different. I may totally disagree with what they did. I may think it's one of the dumbest moves made by a board of supervisors ever in the state of Mississippi or on this planet, but that is not what we are here for today."

    The bond issue cannot move forward unless Primeaux gives the go-ahead when he rules on the matter.

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