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Meetings don’t tell whole story

If the public believes that having cameras in the Natchez City Council Chambers increases transparency in city government, they are mistaken.

Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Natchez mayor and board of aldermen is the latest example of how much of the public’s business is done outside the gaze of the television  cameras.

A vote was widely expected from the board Tuesday on whether to rezone the property on the Forks of the Road site to allow Chartre Consulting to build nine houses as part of its ongoing scattered-site housing project.

The Forks of the Road was the site of the second-largest slave market in the United States.

If you watch the video of Tuesday’s public hearing on the issue and the resulting vote, you will see three things — a very detailed description of the rezoning process from City Planner Frankie Legaux, an offer from Chartre Consulting representative David Kelly to donate a portion of the housing site to the city to help preserve the Forks and a unanimous vote by the board to rezone the property.

The video portrays a non-controversial view of an issue that has been anything but in recent days.

It doesn’t record Ser Seshsh ab Heter-C.M. Boxley’s plea to the board of aldermen to consider its moral obligations to protect the site.

There is no video of Natchez resident and New York Times best-selling author Greg Iles’ eloquent remarks asking the board to step back and consider how critical the Forks of the Road is to Natchez tourism’s future.

There is no record of the discussions by board members that persuaded Ward 4 Alderman Tony Fields to vote for the project after he had previously spoken against developing housing on the Forks of the Road site.

Mayor Butch Brown said as much after the public hearings Tuesday.

“For the benefits of those of you who were not here during the finance committee meeting, we had a thorough discussion of all of these items,” Brown said. “That is why we were able to move it along in short form during this regular meeting.”

That is the problem with the way the city conducts its meetings these days.

The regular scheduled public meetings have become little more than a show for the cameras.

The bulk of the finance meetings, which are also open to the public but sparsely attended, are less about finance and more about hashing out the issues and making sure everyone is on the same page. It has become a dress rehearsal of sorts for the regular meeting, even to the point of knowing how aldermen are going to vote on the issues. Dissenting opinions, like that of Boxley and Iles are scheduled for finance meetings.

Videos of regular meetings offer to the public the impression that the mayor and aldermen operate as a well-oiled, collegial, efficient team with few questions among themselves and fewer from the public.

Executive sessions happen during the finance meetings behind closed doors and before votes to conduct business are recorded on video. Essentially, the messy process of city governance is completed before the cameras are turned on.

Whether it is for brevity’s sake or for demonstrating to the public that the city is being run smoothly, the bi-monthly meetings are doing the public a disservice.

The regular board meetings don’t exactly lie, but they don’t tell the whole truth either.

 

Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.

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