Tuesday, January 9, 2007
A meeting of the City Council descended into bitter acrimony Monday over whether or not to go into closed session regarding a construction contract. Reginold Harrion, deputy city lawyer for public works, told the council that the city opened competitive bids for a bulldozer for a solid-waste facility south of Byram. The council initially accepted the bid of lowest bidder Lyle Machinery last July, but then rescinded their award and handed the contract to second-lowest bidder Puckett Machinery on Dec. 5, when Lyle Machinery did not deliver the bulldozer by the 120-day deadline, Harrion said.
Allen, agreeing with Chief Administration Officer Robert Walker that the matter could lead to litigation, made a motion to discuss the matter in executive session, but his motion failed by a 3-3 vote among the six council members present. Taking a public body like City Council into executive session requires a three-fifths majority, under state law. Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes, who was not present, rarely shows up for Monday council meetings.
Council members Leslie McLemore, Margaret Barrett-Simon and Marshand Crisler voted against Allen's motion. Barrett-Simon and McLemore were particularly eager to discuss the issue in an open forum.
"The only thing we're going to talk about is the purchase of (the machinery)," McLemore argued. "We voted for one, and we said 'yes,' and we were brought information back that something was wrong with the contract, the purchase, or it was not the lowest bid. We sent it back and decided to give it to Puckett. We've done that on an open floor, so explain to me why we can't talk about the price differentials or other matters. I'd like to know why they're top secret. Otherwise I see no reason to go into executive session."
The Mississippi Open Meetings Act does allow public bodies to go into executive session to discuss "potential litigation," but it also states: "Nothing in this section shall be construed to require that any meeting be closed to the public, nor shall any executive session be used to circumvent or to defeat the purposes of this chapter."
McLemore and Allen had already begun to argue prior to the 3-3 vote.
Allen attempted to offer a timeline of events leading up to the issue, but McLemore told him that the mayor's administration should be the one doing the explaining.
"Well, they're going to explain," Allen argued, "but the administration is not liable. The City Council is."
"Mr. President, the City Council didn't make the mistake. We voted on the advice of the administration," McLemore replied.
Harrion took the mic and was briefing the council when Mayor Frank Melton entered the council chambers and cut off the explanation. "You know, we could be dealing with some litigation here," Melton warned.
"Oh, we're dealing with litigation, all right," Allen said. "My colleagues are jumping up and down. Let's get to the guts of it. Let's go."
"Yeah, but when you and I talked over the weekend, we discussed this in private," Melton said.
"Well, it's a litigation matter, but I've been overruled," Allen said.
"It's not that you've been overruled," McLemore said. "We want to know why we need to go to closed session, and nobody can explain that to us. We're searching for a reason (beyond a timeline of events), Mr. President."
"Well, I'm not going to put the city in that position," Melton declared. "This is clearly potentially a legal matter. It's not appropriate to discuss it publicly until we can brief the council on what the facts are, and if you want to go open after that it's up to you. But we're certainly putting the city in a bad situation."
Barrett-Simon, the council's senior member, said she did not see the liability the city faced if Harrion's timeline was accurate.
"So we have a date for compliance, and they (Lyle Machinery) have not complied with the date of delivery," she said.
Crisler later echoed her sentiment. "There was an agreement for 120 days that does not sound like it has been honored. If that was the agreement, then how can we be held liable if that was in the contract? I don't understand why we're on such unstable ground if that was the agreement."
"There are other factors involved," Harrion explained. "I've given you the timeline, but any other thing would need to be discussed in executive session."
Despite the failure of his motion to go into executive session, Allen pulled the item off the agenda and vowed to discuss it next week—to the ire of the opposition. "I didn't understand the (motion for) reconsideration because we didn't vote to reconsider it. We didn't take any action. Procedurally, we need to talk about it," Barrett-Simon said.
"Well, we had three votes to go into executive session, three votes not to go into executive session. I pulled it, but if someone would like to put a motion on to override on me pulling that issue, we could certainly discuss it. Other than that, I'd be very surprised that somebody on the administration side says another word about it," Allen said, repeating that council members needed to discuss the situation with the mayor's staff before the issue comes up again at the next meeting.
"To get some clarity, we'll have to get into the legal issues involving it, and there's no way to do it except in closed session. That's all I can say. … We've got two different legal opinions, and this is not the place to discuss (them)."
Melton assured Allen that Stokes—who has generally skipped Monday meetings since the FBI investigated the council in the 1990s—would soon be available for a vote.
"Mr. Stokes is on his way," Melton said. "If you need four votes (for this), you'll have them."
Stokes, a frequent opponent of Allen during the last administration, has been a staunch ally of Melton and, thus, a frequent ally with Allen, who often defers to the mayor.
"Did you believe that?' Crisler said of Stokes' promised appearance. "Do you know how hard it is to get that man here?"
Dan Lyle, executive vice president of Lyle machinery, refused to comment on the contract, and would not confirm whether Lyle had passed the deadline of its contract. "(Lyle co-owner) Jimmy Lyle is meeting with the city today to discuss the issue," Dan Lyle told the JFP Tuesday. "Maybe we'll have a statement tomorrow."
Some council members suspect there is more to the story than the administration suggests, which would explain the desire for secrecy. Even Melton suggested as much when he demanded that council members admit to whether or not they had any connections with either Puckett or Lyle.
"There's probably more to this that they just don't want to let out," McLemore told the JFP.
The message here is: Don't let contracts to friends?
Just sounds like more cover-up of how poorly this city has been run for the last year and a year to me. It's one thing after another. And Allen's attempts to get it quiet, and/or appease the mayor, is just going to make it worse, and hurt him in the process. He needs to let the sunshine in, and fast.
Agreed! Spooky, how none of this is surprising!
PUBLIC Officials are just that: PUBLIC! We are into our 19th month of an Administration in Jackson that will long be remembered for its desire for secrecy. Covert operations, Executive Session requests (demands), circumventing laws put in place to keep the PUBLIC informed, tearing up of documents meant for PUBLIC eyes, secret crime statistics, and the dismissal of personnel who wanted to keep the PUBLIC informed. Hey you all, we are the PUBLIC. Don't be lulled into a sense of false security. Secrecy in government is dangerous to your health! Do not tolerate it. Keep yelling!
H E L P !!!!!!!!!