Changing leadership marks 2007

Published 12:52 am Sunday, December 30, 2007

NATCHEZ — To the eye, 2007 in the Miss-Lou meant brick piles, bulldozers and hard hats.

Construction was everywhere and everyone recognizes the community is changing.

But the bigger stories of 2007 involved the people — past and present — charged with leading that changing community.

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Area elections kicked off first in Adams County in March with one of the largest slates of candidates in recent history. Every race had a challenger, and most had three.

In the center of the election storm, though, were the three candidates challenging Circuit Clerk M.L. “Binkey” Vines.

Vines pleaded guilty to charges of embezzlement before the election season got heated. An out-of-town judge refused to accept the plea, allowing Vines to stay in office and run again.

Donnie Holloway, Wilbur Johnson and Eddie Walker all ran on the platform of restoring honesty to the clerk’s office.

Vines and Walker made it to a runoff.

And in August, Walker defeated Vines in a landslide.

But the Vines saga didn’t end there.

He failed to turn in required paperwork to the auditors office by the deadline, the state attorney general issued a statement asking the judge to review the case and Vines was ultimately removed from office. He was sentenced to one year of supervised probation.

Walker took office early, and has said he’s working to get the office matters in place, despite missing files and computer records.

County elections

Vines’ race wasn’t the only one on the ballot though, and in November longtime county supervisor Sammy Cauthen lost his seat to challenger Mike Lazarus. The change is likely to reverse the majority on the board, bringing a new outlook for the next four years.

Concordia Parish elections

The hotly contested parish sheriff’s race was supposed to be over in October.

But an original 22-vote difference between incumbent Randy Maxwell and challenger Glenn Lipsey opened the door for an election contest.

Lipsey filed, and court proceedings began. Lipsey challenged the votes of dozens of people, saying many were not residents of Concordia Parish. Local judges recused themselves and after days of witnesses, an appointed judge denied Lipsey’s request.

He appealed, twice over, but ultimately the state Supreme Court ended things, making Maxwell the winner.

The construction

Hotels, roadways, a new prison and a convention center kept the contractors happy in 2007.

The Hampton Inn & Suites, the Country Inn & Suites, Best Western and the new Grand Soleil moved dirt and bricks this year, and the Hampton opened for guests just weeks ago.

A fifth hotel — Holiday Inn Express — is planned for the Vidalia Riverfront.

That project won’t be far from the newly opened Vidalia Conference and Convention Center that opened this year.

And back in Mississippi, the Natchez Trace bridge over Liberty Road was completed after years of road work.

On U.S. 84, Corrections Corporation of America began work on their new prison, only months after first saying they wanted to come to Adams County.

The prison — one of two that said they wanted to locate here — faced opposition from a group of residents close to their proposed site. A petition was circulated, but not enough signatures were gathered and CCA got the go ahead.

The prison had lunch for local leaders in one of the new buildings just weeks ago.

The casinos

Two casino deals that began talks in previous years became more of a reality this year.

Emerald Star changed its name to Grand Soleil and began millions of dollars worth of dirt work and bluff stabilization south of the bridge.

Lane Co. — or Natchez Enterprises — continued talks with the city and recently released drawings of their facilities. The casino won’t be a boat, but instead will sit on stilts over the river.

Pecan factory

In February, Mayor Phillip West issued an executive order to tear down the former pecan factory building on the bluff.

West said the building was a safety hazard, others said his actions were illegal because the property was private.

West appeared in court after the attorney general’s office filed a civil suit because of the demolition.

The remains of the building — on a historic site — sat at the site for weeks, until the city got a permit for removal.


The year wasn’t without it’s horrors, two of which involved young people and horrible losses.

In Ferriday, 15-year-old Connor Wood was arrested on charges of murder in March for the shooting deaths of his parents and 16-year-old Matthew Whittington.

Wood later pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and underwent a mental evaluation.

His trial is expected in the coming year.

A second tragedy occurred on the night of July 4, when three young people died and another was injured after their vehicle drove off a cliff at the end of Briel Avenue in Natchez.

Driver Cody McJohnson — the only survivor — was reportedly drunk. His passengers were Nicholas Kirby, 19, Justin Wiley, 21, and Kristin Holmes, 15.

The site of their accident became a pilgrimage of sorts for dozens of area residents.

Civil rights case

In January, Franklin County resident James Ford Seale was arrested in connection with the 1964 murder of Charles Moore. In July he was found guilty and in August he was sentenced to life.

Superintendent fired

What began over the summer came to a head this fall for the Concordia Parish School Board when Superintendent Kerry Laster’s contract was not renewed.

Laster, the district’s leader for approximately four years, was at the center of much debate in the parish for weeks. Citizens and teachers approached the board on her behalf, but ultimately a 6-3 vote sent her out the door.

Board members and citizens pointed to a longstanding debate over the outsourcing of the district bus services as a major reason for Laster’s removal.

Loretta Peterman Blankenstein is currently serving as interim superintendent.

Robert Lewis Middle School restructuring

After the Natchez-Adams School District had a public meeting to discuss academic failures at the middle school, things went down hill.

Rumors of a suspension of the school’s interim principal Larry Hooper led the schools students to riot in April. Student refused to go to class and threw water balloons. Police were called in to break it up.

Hooper was not rehired, and three new administrators were brought in to lead the school. RLMS is must turn state test scores around to avoid federal consequences.

Up next

With 2008 only days away many of the 2007 stories will carry on into the future.

Perhaps the biggest project on the horizon is Rentech — a coal-to-liquid plant that started talks in Adams County two years ago. The company’s leaders say work is on track, and the community will see progress in 2008.