EDITORIAL/Cotton Blossom pavinggate
An executive session called by the Board of Supervisors last Monday to discuss choosing an engineering firm for a proposed $60 million road project was improper and illegal.
And at least one supervisor objected. District 2 Supervisor Trey Baxter of Madison said when supervisors went in to discuss two engineering firms who responded to an RFP for the proposed Cotton Blossom Road project, he left because the discussion didn’t qualify as an executive session.
And Baxter is exactly right, according to Mississippi law. “I recused myself because I thought executive sessions was called improperly for choosing a professional services contract,” Baxter said last week. “There’s no threat of legal action. There’s no economic development, so I didn’t see the reasoning behind calling for an engineering contract.”
Board Attorney Mike Espy recommended supervisors discuss the matter in executive session.
Espy might be the man you’d want on your side in a government bribe, but not when it comes to government transparency.
Both engineering firms gave presentations to the board in open session prior to Espy steering further discussion in private.
“This could be described as an economic development project,” Espy told board members, saying he didn’t want anybody to make a comment that could border on privileged information.
Graveling driveways and putting down culverts on private property were once thought of as a form of economic development — and maybe privileged for those fortunate beneficiaries of the government.
The state Open Meetings Act allows for a handful of exceptions in closed session such as personnel matters or pending litigation.
Paving a road is not one of the exceptions, to be sure.
The law specifically allows for a meeting to discuss “transaction of business and discussions or negotiations regarding the location, relocation or expansion of a business, medical service or an industry.”
Think of Nissan or Amazon, not paving a single road.
The law also allows for “transaction of business and discussion regarding the prospective purchase, sale or leasing of lands.”
Baxter is right to insist that neither of those apply in the Cotton Blossom scenario because the discussion was for a professional services contract, which the Mississippi Ethics Commission has ruled aren’t an exception for executive session under the state’s Open Meetings Act at all.
The Cotton Blossom Road project would ultimately connect Highway 43 to Sowell Road via Cotton Blossom Road and create a new east-west corridor.
Waggoner Engineering and the Stantec firm both responded to the RFP and gave presentations to the board where each side was sequestered during the other’s presentation.
Board President Gerald Steen said for him it boiled down to whichever firm would be able to help secure more funding, despite that not being a part of the RFP.
“To me it boils down to the finances,” Steen said during the presentations.
Steen might as well have said it boils down to what he can get out of it since the entire discussion was not in open session.
The board had no public discussion after the presentations and took no action in executive session. They voted to take the matter up at the next board meeting on May 2.
Espy argued in an email respone to the Journal late last Wednesday that the Cotton Road Blossom project, as a “large economic development project, could acquire sufficient lands and funds to go forward.
“I also informed the board that one presenter had disclosed information that I considered ‘sensitive and privileged,’ and that this could not be repeated in open session. Again, because of the specter of potential litigation.”
Stantec and Waggoner are both good firms and have done quality work for Madison County, so the issue here is about the lowest cost to taxpayers and being transparent.
Supervisors should bid this out and award it at the lowest hourly rate, because either side can now sue if not selected because Steen opened the door and now taxpayers are liable.