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City to seek official auditor’s opinion about consultant’s expenses

NATCHEZ — The Natchez city attorney said Tuesday he would seek an official opinion from the state auditor’s office on whether or not the city is allowed to pay expenses for a consultant who works for the Natchez Convention Center.

Monday, the Natchez Convention and Visitor’s Bureau board voted to deny payment of an expense report for Angela Weathersby, a Jackson-based saleswoman hired by New Orleans Hotel Consultants — the firm that manages the Natchez Convention Center — to recruit Jackson-area groups to the convention center.

Weathersby’s hire was funded in part by the city increasing the amount it pays to New Orleans Hotel Consultants in management fees. The company’s president, Warren Reuther, said Monday the CVB had previously agreed to pay marketing money, including travel expenses, related to Weathersby’s hire.

But Tourism Director Connie Taunton explained to the Natchez Board of Aldermen Tuesday that, after speaking to the state auditor’s office by phone, she did not believe the city could legally follow through with that arrangement.

“It is not legal of us, the city, to pay her expenses because she is not employed by the city or the Natchez Convention and Promotion Commission,” Taunton said. “She is employed by New Orleans Hotel Consultants. That is the way it is, plain and simple.”

City Attorney Hyde Carby said that the operation of the convention center by the outside company is legislatively authorized, and for that reason he would ask for a specific opinion from the auditor’s office.

“I feel that by requesting an official opinion we can satisfy all the parties involved,” he said. “There may be a specific rule that could trump the more broadly worded legislation, but rather than shoot from the hip I would rather ask.”

Taunton said she had mentioned the legislation in her conversation with the auditor’s office.

“I can’t break the law, and the auditor stated that even the commission, if they approved those expenses, would be held liable for repaying those,” she said.

Alderman Mark Fortenbery expressed some frustration at the situation.

“We gave (Reuther) the extra money to his contract to do whatever he wanted to do,” Fortenbery said. “Why is the city supporting this? We shouldn’t — this is his problem. We went up on his management fee, it’s up to him to manage it.”

Taunton said she felt bad for Weathersby because of the situation.

“It is nothing that should be reflected on her by any means,” Taunton said. “When she got an expense report, I told her to turn it over to New Orleans Hotel Consultants until we could get it ironed out.”

In other news:

- Alderman Dan Dillard asked that the city seek to get a copy of the bond resolution for the city’s 2009 refinancing of a $3.01 million bond from the bond paying agent, Hancock Bank.

The reason he wanted a copy, Dillard said, is that he is unable to determine what the true interest rate on the bond is with the paperwork the city has on hand.

Different copies of paperwork list three different interest rates, he said.

“The paying agent is required to keep a register, so I am certain he has (the correct interest rate),” Dillard said.

- The aldermen voted to reject all bids for the city’s surplus property, which had been advertised for sale.

Dillard said the board should do so because they wanted better bids.

- The aldermen voted to ratify the hiring of Ed Bowser as information technology director and Brigid Chappell as his assistant.

- Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis asked if it would be possible for the city to form a committee to beautify boarded-up buildings in the downtown area.

“Some cities have utilized the art departments from their local schools and come up with nice ways of doing something with the boarded up buildings,” she said.

Mayor Butch Brown said Natchez Inc. and Alcorn State University already have an effort under way to identify the owners of empty buildings downtown.

“Once we have got a list, we need to get a call group set up and call the owners of those properties and call them to help us clean up downtown Natchez, not making it a mandate, but calling on them to help make where they make their living a little better,” he said.

- Mathis said she would continue to pursue an opportunity to meet with officials with the Natchez-Adams County School District to discuss a recent Internet report from www.neighborhoodscout.com that ranked Natchez High School as the seventh-worst school in the nation.

The alderwoman said she had spoken with Superintendent of Schools Frederick Hill about the report, and that he told her the criteria used for the ranking was not appropriate for gauging schools.

Such a report could hurt the area’s economic recruitment efforts, she said.

“We don’t want this information out there in cyberspace that makes us looks bad,” she said.

“If this is a bogus website that is not using the right criteria to back this up, we can have a coalition to go to them (to address it).”

- The aldermen approved the purchase of five new police cars at a total cost of $111,482. City Clerk Donnie Holloway said the purchase had previously been included in the police department’s budget.