West made mockery of laws Thursday

Published 8:38 am Friday, February 9, 2007

Everybody loves a good David and Goliath story.

Who can resist cheering for the small guy wrestling in the shadows of a giant bully or tyrant.

Ask Natchez Mayor Phillip West, who has seemingly made a career of battling against big and insurmountable odds.

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From fighting racism in the Natchez-Adams School District to combating leaders in the Mississippi Legislature, Phillip West has been led by his convictions even when it goes against the prevailing opinion.

And that has not changed in his leadership role as mayor.

The soap opera that is the Natchez Pecan Factory is one example.

I don’t know from where the expression “thumbing your nose” comes. But if I were looking for an ideal illustration of this gesture, the situation surrounding the pecan factory would be it.

West’s actions Thursday morning amounted to “thumbing your nose” not just at a small group of vocal opponents, but also at various groups across the city and state.

Under an executive order from the mayor, city crews tore down the pecan factory.

The fate of the building on the Mississippi bluffs was really never in question.

Yet, the old factory building on Broadway Street has always seemed to be an obstacle in the way of progress for the city.

As long as the building stood, there was no progress — or so it seemed to the city leaders.

So without a demolition permit from the State Department of Archives and History, without going through the city’s own permitting process, despite a legal battle facing the Mississippi Supreme Court and in the face of a cease and desist order from the attorney general, West ordered the building to come down, all while thumbing his nose.

Despite all that, there were a few cheers from bystanders as they watched the wall fall to the ground.

My guess is that there are more than a few in the city who see this as another David and Goliath tale called Phillip West against Big Bad Government.

The difficulty is that West is part of the government that he vehemently disdains.

So to whom is he thumbing his nose?

First, West is sending a message to the historic preservation community.

We will not let preservation stand in the way of progress, West has said of the city in the past.

A day after West addressed the participants of this year’s history conference with a message touting the importance of preservation efforts in Natchez, he decided to send a decidedly different message Thursday morning as the bricks and twisted metal crashed to ground.

In the same moment he thumbed his nose at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

MDAH director Hank Holmes, who was in town Thursday for the conference, heard firsthand about the demolition.

Despite developers failing to meet any of the three requirements set by MDAH for demolishing the building, the mayor went ahead with it anyway.

But by far the most troubling target of West’s offending gesture is the rule of law itself.

What example does this set for the citizens of Natchez?

Laws of the city and the state have now been ignored — nullified by our leader’s actions.

Requirements of the city’s preservation and zoning boards have been disregarded.

Landmark status doesn’t matter. Even an attorney general’s order means very little.

In effect, what the mayor is telling the citizens of Natchez is if one doesn’t agree with the law, one doesn’t have to abide by the law.

The only problem is if you thumb your nose at the law, what do you have left?

Ben Hillyer is the web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3552 or ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.