We need integrity in our news reporting

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 18, 2007

Over the past several months, and after the return to Natchez of Kevin Cooper, publisher for The Natchez Democrat, several issues regarding actions of city government and more specifically Phillip West, acting as the duly elected mayor of our city, have been reported and categorized in a nonfactual manner.

Mr. Cooper and/or Ms. Finley have misrepresented the facts by printing misrepresentations, half-truths, total falsehoods, etc.; doing a disservice to the many good citizens of our community.

Approximately a week ago, The Democrat reported falsely the City of Natchez was having an “illegal meeting.” At our Oct. 16 meeting, the board of aldermen asked me to convene a meeting on crime and public safety. I announced at the Oct. 23 meeting, in the presence of Ben Hillyer and another reporter, the convening of a committee meeting to organize and plan a strategy consisting of the chief of police, other law enforcement officials, interested elected officials, appropriate city department heads, etc. I said this meeting was not a meeting to solicit public input. My comments were then used to create a controversy where none existed.

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If the board or I were going to have a so-called “illegal meeting,” why would I announce it at a public meeting in the presence of The Natchez Democrat. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they may have misunderstood or misinterpreted my statement or intent.

So they proceeded to report to the public misinformation. It is my understanding a reporter contacted alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux Mathis, Attorney Everett Sanders and other city staff to question them on the legality of this meeting. I am the person who announced the meeting and was authorized to convene the meeting but was never called for clarification or explanation.

I wonder why? Our committee met on Oct. 31 and I offered to Ben Hillyer clarification of the matter but my relevant comments were not printed.

Cooper and/or Finley, in an editorial dated Nov. 1, stated our committee meeting was open to the public because they (The Natchez Democrat) threatened us. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As mayor for the city, I made a proposal to jumpstart the development of a quality comprehensive recreational program for our children, families and our community. Cooper immediately wrote as fact that I timed this proposal for political re-election purposes. Wrong again.

Approximately two years prior to Cooper returning to Natchez from his home in Alabama, I, together with the United Way of the Miss-Lou, had a meeting with many community and business leaders to see what we could do to establish a first-class YMCA/health and wellness center.

Kathy Stephens, executive director of the United Way, began to solicit commitments from the private sector to pay for a feasibility study required as a first step to develop a YMCA. The city was operating on a “shoestring” budget with so many financial shortcomings, we had no real financial resources to pursue this project. Over the next year-and-a-half, the financial conditions of the city improved. We received over $400,000 from the sale of land for our convention center hotel, $500,000 for sale of the pecan factory site, our sales tax collections increased to the highest in the history of this city over the last two years and we negotiated a proposal with the Lane Company and signed option agreement recently that, among other things, would pay the city $1,000,000 a year in rental income.

At present, over $1,000,000 per year, all of our gaming taxes are being paid for debt service and operational costs for our much needed Convention and Visitors Center. I believe prioritizing our children, families and future generations of Natchez with quality recreational opportunities is long overdue. We should put our money where our mouth is and stop giving lip service with no substance.

Several weeks prior to my recreation proposal being made, The Natchez Democrat did a story on our recreational needs. They interviewed Supervisor Darryl Grennell, Alderman Jake Middleton, Recreational Director Ralph Tedder and others. They talked about the need for recreation but none made any proposal to move forward. When I made my proposal, I thought all would be happy and supportive, including The Natchez Democrat. I was wrong. I wonder why?

You may know a lot about publishing a newspaper, but as a 28-year elected public servant, I can see you know very little about government and the vital role we play in developing our community.

Finally, Cooper made a statement as fact that I broke the law when I tore down that dilapidated, safety hazard, eyesore Pecan Shelling Factory. Cooper, I have never been convicted of any crime nor ever charged with a crime in my 61 years of existence. I would suggest you read The Constitution of the United States of America and due process where one is innocent until proven guilty.

For your information, my only regret is that I did not have it torn down (as my first mind told me) at least a year earlier.

Since Cooper returned to Natchez, he has continuously, without fact, questioned my integrity. When he was in Natchez some eight to 10 years ago, while a previous mayor was serving, allegations of corruption, unethical behavior, etc. were rampant throughout the community. The Natchez Democrat never printed one word about these alleged misdeeds.

I can only conclude his misrepresentations of me are a part of his personal political agenda and/or he has a problem with the color of my skin.

I hope I am wrong, but the evidence thus far makes me believe I am right.

We need good progressive people in our community; I hope and pray one day the newspaper staff will be one with integrity.

Phillip West is the mayor of the City of Natchez.

Editor’s Notes: Several calls to Mayor Phillip West during the week of the first city crime meeting were not returned. The reporter writing the article did try to contact him. Calls to City Hall on the day of the meeting were answered by city employees who said the meeting was closed to the public. Publisher Kevin Cooper is not from Alabama, and has never lived there.