Experts: No conflict in land deal

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 27, 2001

Involvement by the mayor’s wife in a real estate deal to bring a $3 million townhouse complex to Natchez does not appear to be a conflict of interest, industry and ethics officials said Thursday.

Jackie Smith, wife of Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith is a realtor with Coldwell Banker Brown and Company Inc., the local agency listing property off Old Washington Road recently considered for the 40-unit complex.

After the board of aldermen turned down the site Tuesday, Smith assisted the developers in locating three other properties. The Natchez Metro Planning Commission will call a special meeting May 10 to review the applications.

Smith said she first became involved in the project when Christopher Knott of Trustmark Construction, who is representing the developers in the application process, approached her about firm the property it has listed on Old Washington Road.

For that particular property, Smith said she was a &uot;dual agent,&uot; meaning she represented both the buyer and the seller.

Her role in the three properties now under application will be determined by &uot;how the properties piece together,&uot; she said Thursday.

Of the three parcels, the property at St. Catherine and Fourth streets is listed under another agent at Coldwell Banker Brown and Company, Inc.

If in the process of contacting land owners and piecing together the properties, she comes across any city-owned property, Smith said she would still be involved, but would not be compensated.

&uot;Whether it’s written, or it’s not, I’m not going to do it,&uot; she said.

&uot;I’m a stickler for detail,&uot; she said. &uot;I do not cross the line, I just don’t do it.&uot;

Mayor Smith said neither he nor his wife have anything to hide about Mrs. Smith’s involvement in the real estate negotiations.

&uot;She is as aware as I am of conflict of interest situations, ethics commission violations, and at this point, there are none,&uot; Mayor Smith said. &uot;If it were to come down to me having to vote on a rezoning that she’s involved in, I will have to recuse myself from voting.&uot;

At any point city property comes into play, Mayor Smith said his wife would need to remove herself from the situation entirely.

Ron Crow at the office of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, said only the commission itself could issue a formal opinion on the matter. But speaking from his own opinion, he does not believe it to be a problem. Still, Mayor Smith should try to &uot;avoid the issue,&uot; he said.

&uot;Let someone else conduct the meeting for that item and he should rescind himself,&uot; Crow said.

Robert Praytor, Mississippi Real Estate Commission administrator, agreed.

Praytor said as long as the purchaser, meaning Knott, is aware of the husband-wife relationship, there shouldn’t be a conflict of interest.

&uot;As long as they are aware of that, it shouldn’t be a problem,&uot; he said.

Prior knowledge of the connection between the governing board and the real estate representation prevents the unfair practice of &uot;inferior bargaining,&uot; he said.

Jo Usry, education director for the Mississippi Association of Realtors, handles professional standards for realtors on a day to day basis.

While she could not comment on whether the situation may be a conflict of interest, Usry did say state law requires agents to assign themselves to an involved party.

&uot;Facilitation is illegal in our state,&uot; Usry said. &uot;An agent has to represent someone, whether its the buyer, the seller or both.&uot;