Board denies casino amendment

Published 12:10 am Friday, February 3, 2012

Rod Guajardo / The Natchez Democrat — Gwen Ball, right, talks with Wilson Caroll after the Natchez Board of Aldermen voted to deny the proposed Roth Hill casino lease amendment Thursday night. Among other things, the amendment included provisions to reduce the casino’s commitment to non-casino projects.

NATCHEZ — Without any discussion of the provisions of the Roth Hill casino developers’ proposed lease amendment, the Natchez Board of Aldermen unanimously voted to deny the amendment at a specially called meeting Thursday.

Mayor Jake Middleton opened the meeting by asking for a vote to determine whether or not the board should go into a closed executive session to discuss the lease amendment, employment of outside legal counsel to review the amendment and hiring an information technology director.

No alderman made a motion for the determination, and Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said since the lease amendment was public information available for view on The Natchez Democrat’s Web site, she did not understand why the board needed to go into executive session.

Middleton said attorney Scott Andress with Balch & Bingham in Jackson was at the meeting in case the board decided to hire him as outside counsel. Middleton said Andress was prepared to discuss the amendment with the city in executive session.

The board voted at its Jan. 19 meeting to hire an outside attorney to review the amendment at the request of several concerned residents.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard said board members met with Andress in Jackson, and Dillard said he felt the board could make a decision on the amendment without further advisement from Andress and without an executive session. Dillard made a motion to deny the lease amendment in its entirety.

Middleton said he believed the fact that there was confusion among the board and residents about the amendment at the board’s last meeting warranted an opportunity for both Andress and Natchez Gaming Enterprises’ attorney Tommy Shepherd to discuss the amendment with the board, whether it was in open or closed session.

“I think there are some agreements that have been made…all I’m asking is for the board to listen,” Middleton said.

Several comments were made by members of the crowd that had packed the City Council Chambers, and Middleton, red-faced and visibly frustrated, specifically addressed one Natchez resident.

“I hear you laughing back there…did you say something?” Middleton said.

The resident said he did not agree with Middleton but would answer questions if Middleton wanted to ask any.

“You can stop talking while I am talking,” Middleton said. “You do not have the floor. You can stop laughing or get out.”

Middleton went on to say that he did not believe anyone in the audience would put together a business deal without first thoroughly discussing it.

“You are talking about a tremendous amount of time that we have asked them to do, but the board refuses to talk about it,” Middleton said.

Mathis said the board had only refused to talk about the amendment in executive session.

She said she had been prepared to stay at least two hours to discuss the amendment in open session.

Natchez Gaming Enterprises’ attorney Tommy Shepherd of Jones Walker in Jackson told the board after the vote he was concerned that he and his client had not been given the opportunity to discuss what the provisions of the lease amendment meant for the casino and the city.

“If these lender protection provisions are not added to the lease, the city is in serious jeopardy of not getting the revenue for this project,” he said.

“I’m very disappointed we have not been able to discuss this and the way it’s been played out in the (news)paper and in letters to the editor based on half-truths of some of this information,” Shepherd said.

The amendment included provisions that seemingly reduced the casino’s commitment to non-casino projects in the city and included the possibility of a parking lot near the casino instead of a public park and an annual percentage of the casino’s revenue to a community development fund instead of an annual fixed $225,000 in the original lease.

The amendment also named Levine Leichtman Capital Partners Inc., one of the casino’s investors, a third-party beneficiary and leasehold mortgagee.

In other news from the meeting:

4The board voted to make an offer to one of the three remaining candidates recommended by the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Technology for the position of information technology director.

Committee member Allen Richard said two of the remaining candidates did not meet the specific requirements in the job advertisement of a minimum of five years experience and a bachelor’s degree but were otherwise qualified.

Middleton said he will release the name of the IT director if the candidate accepts the city’s offer.