City planning office is key to engine failure

Published 12:07 am Friday, May 16, 2008

The first car I ever drove was a hand-me-down from my dad.

It was a white Mazda he bought in the early 80s. He ran that tin-can of a car into the ground before handing it over to his son.

It was my first introduction to cars and car maintenance.

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Like a teenager, I paid little attention to those important things like rotating the tires and changing the oil.

Most of all, I gave little thought to those squeaks and groans that occasionally would come from the front of the car.

As long as the car ran down the street, I was happy.

That was until a hot rainy afternoon, when my car began to lose power and eventually stall, leaving me stranded on some West Alabama country road.

Had I paid attention to the tell-tale signs I would have realized much sooner that I had a cracked distributor cap.

To be honest, I didn’t realize that the car had been misfiring for a while.

It was a life lesson about the importance of car maintenance.

Interestingly, a car’s ignition system and city government have a lot in common.

Take the recent situation with Fat Mama’s Tamales for example.

As the newspaper’s Web editor, I have read numerous arguments for and against the construction of Fat Mama’s Tamales.

Preservationists are up in arms about violations to approved plans. This includes the construction of the tamale stand some 50 feet closer to Washington Street than what was originally OK’d by the city preservation commission.

Pro-business groups are pointing fingers saying that once again businesses and jobs are being forced out of downtown Natchez.

Tempers have flared; lawyers have been called — all because the city’s engine has a cracked distributor cap.

Just like a car engine, the city’s engine relies on the efficient and accurate distribution of power.

Before the 1990s a car used a distributor to complete this task. It was the nerve center of the ignition system. It made sure that the spark fired to the proper cylinder through the spark plugs.

When the spark plugs did not fire correctly, the engine ran rough or not at all.

From my perspective, much of the frustration, emotion, pointing fingers, wasted time and money could have been prevented if the city was firing on all cylinders — especially in the city planning office.

In the last four years, four men have sat at the city planner’s desk in city hall.

Wednesday night, it was revealed that the city planning commission recommended changes to Fat Mama’s plans. These were changes the restaurant owners put into place — some of the very changes that were in question.

What happened next was a series of bumbling moves by a city planning office that was being run without a leader.

Instead of resubmitting the plans to the city preservation commission, Fat Mamas was given the go ahead for construction.

The city planning office was misfiring and nobody in city hall was paying much attention.

It wasn’t until Fat Mama’s had a roof on their building that the current city planner shut down the project because of numerous violations — violations that should have been caught well before construction.

All of these violations could have been prevented and so could the needless spectacle that has resulted.

It is but one example as to why efficiently run departments are vital to city government.

In the last four years city leaders have continued to allow the planning office to misfire. Instead of paying attention to the city’s engine, the city has allowed a bad situation to get worse.

Hopefully a new board of aldermen and new mayor will realize this and get the city’s engine running smoothly again.

Ben Hillyer is the web editor of The Democrat. He can be reached at