Casino lease will define election

Published 12:02 am Friday, February 17, 2012

What do you do in a four-hour executive session in the Natchez city council chambers?

You might turn to your neighbor and talk about the news. Of course, if you’re waiting for the mayor and aldermen to make a decision that will affect one of the city’s greatest resources, the real news is behind closed doors. What remains is conjecture, rumor and debate.

As city leaders discussed strategy with their newly-hired counsel in executive session, the residents who filled the council chambers debated the issues among themselves.

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What might have been more productive than idle conversation would have been to conduct a debate between the current slate of candidates running for mayor.

It wouldn’t have been hard. Former mayors Larry L. “Butch” Brown and Phillip West and first-time candidate Bill Furlow — all of whom say they are vying to replace mayor Jake Middleton this June — have attended many of the city meetings and work sessions,

Both Furlow and Brown have publicly addressed the mayor and board of aldermen with questions and concerns about the city and its lease with gaming company Natchez Enterprises.

Candidates could have taken advantage of microphones, television cameras and newspaper coverage for such a debate. All that was needed was a moderator and a slate of questions.

How is this for an opening question for each candidate?

Do you agree with how the city has handled lease negotiations with casino developer Natchez Enterprises? If not, what would you have done differently?

In the world of politics, every election seems to have a defining moment that tips the election to one or another candidate.

In national elections, the media picks apart every candidate’s move to find that pivotal quote or crucial mistake.

Nixon had his five-oclock shadow, Reagan had his morning in America. Dukakis had his tank.

In the world of local politics, such moments are not so easily identified.

If you were looking for such a defining moment in the 2012 Natchez municipal races, you might circle 12:46 p.m. on Feb. 15, 2012 on your calendar.

It was at that moment the Natchez board of aldermen voted 5-1 to approve a third amendment to its lease with casino developer Natchez Enterprises.

Ward 6 alderman Dan Dillard was the lone vote in opposition to the lease amendment. After the vote Thursday, Dillard said he voted against the motion because he had lost confidence in the developers over the course of the project’s lifetime.

“They’re going to have to regain my trust,” Dillard said.

The same might be said of the aldermen and the mayor, if you asked the large crowd that filled nearly every seat in the council chambers.

To be fair, casino representatives and contractors who stand to gain much from the second casino were among a group of supporters.

For them, the lease amendment debate is just as important as it is for the opposition.

There are many critical issues Natchez faces. Crime, infrastructure, budget woes top the list.

However, chances are how the mayor and aldermen chose to handle the negotiations with Natchez Enterprise will overshadow them all.

That the candidates for mayor were in the dubious crowd suggests that we will hear lots more about the casino in the coming months from all sides.


Ben Hillyer is design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by email at