Natchez planning hires will stand

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 9, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; During a heated two-hour meeting, aldermen voted 4-3 &8212; with Mayor Phillip West breaking the tie &8212; to ratify City Planner Andrew Smith&8217;s hiring of three people for his department and amend the budget to pay them.

Figures on how much the three new hires&8217; salaries will cost the city weren&8217;t discussed, and Smith would not comment following the meeting.

As far back as last summer&8217;s budget discussions for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, Smith said his department was overworked and needed additional people.

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And with Code Enforcement Officer Willie B. Jones suffering a stroke three weeks ago, the department was more in need than ever of the three hires, who started work one week ago, Smith told aldermen.

&8220;We&8217;ve got enough work for three or four code enforcement officers&8221; in addition to the three new hires, Smith said.

Mayor West said it was his understanding after the Board of Aldermen&8217;s work session that aldermen agreed the planning department was understaffed.

The mayor said it was also his understanding that there was enough money in that department&8217;s budget for the new hires. &8220;That&8217;s what I told Andrew&8221; the next day, he said.

Alderman and Mayor Pro Tem David Massey said that during the work session City Clerk Donnie Holloway &8220;said Andrew had three slots he could fill&8221; besides his own city planner slot.

&8220;I&8217;m opposed to having six people in that department. That&8217;s more than we&8217;ve ever had before. I understand we were budgeted for four&8221; including Smith&8217;s position, Massey said.

&8220;That&8217;s correct,&8221; Holloway said, noting that the department has $119,000 budgeted for personnel.

&8220;If you go over budget in any department, you&8217;re supposed to go back to the board&8221; of aldermen for approval, Massey told Smith.

Massey and Alderman Theodore &8220;Bubber&8221; West both said it was their understanding a former planning department staffer now working in the City Clerk&8217;s Office was to be transferred back to planning as one of the new hires.

Smith confirmed that staff member would not be transferred back to his department.

Alderman West said he understood from the work session that Smith would hire two more people, for a total of five, including Smith.

Alderman James &8220;Rickey&8221; Gray said he received a memo from Smith regarding the hires and understood that three people would be hired.

He also took issue with personnel issues regarding the planning department being aired in newspaper articles instead of &8220;in house.&8221;

Massey took issue with the fact that all three of the new hires were black people and no employees in the department were white.

&8220;We&8217;ve never had a department that was all minorities,&8221; Massey said. &8220;That&8217;s not the way we do things in this city.&8221;

Others later correctly stated that one planning department employee, the department&8217;s secretary, is white.

Massey said Alderman West, during a phone conversation with Massey, expressed his concerns that all the hires were all one race.

Alderman West said he first took a stand against such practices 14 years ago.

But at the same time, Gray pointed out that all employees in the Engineering Department &8212; and the Inspection Department, Alderman West added &8212; are white.

A heated discussion followed, after which Massey said to Gray, &8220;You&8217;re the biggest racist on this board.&8221;

Gray said after the meeting he didn&8217;t hear Massey&8217;s comment.

&8220;But my voting record speaks for itself. I know I&8217;m not a racist,&8221; Gray said. &8220;I do what&8217;s best for the city of Natchez.

&8220;Aldermen calling each other names might make whatever industry wants to come here think twice. But that&8217;s his opinion. Everybody has their opinions. &8230; I only care about what God thinks of me.&8221;

And Smith noted that while all three positions &8212; land use specialist, planning specialist and community improvement specialist &8212; were advertised in the newspaper, only 10 people applied for the three positions, and only one applicant was white.

Mayor West noted that the city has enjoyed increased sales tax revenues since before Hurricane Katrina brought evacuees to the city, giving it more money for such hires.

He also said planning isn&8217;t a department he would favor shortchanging, &8220;since that&8217;s one of the few areas that can help you grow your city.&8221;

But the mayor also noted that the hiring process is flawed in at least one respect &8212; that in the past, aldermen have given verbal approval to some hires without taking a formal vote.

&8220;We need to revisit this issue,&8221; he said.

Mayor West did say that the flap over the planning department hires illustrated another problem he wants resolved as well.

&8220;You&8217;re going to have to decide what power we&8217;re going to give the mayor versus everyone else trying to manage&8221; day-to-day city operations, Mayor West told the aldermen.

&8220;The perception is that I&8217;m in charge, but in reality you&8217;re in charge,&8221; he told the aldermen.