Does anyone else hear that ringing noise?

Published 12:03 am Friday, February 15, 2013

How many alarm bells must sound in the Natchez city council chambers before we realize that there is something very wrong in the city clerk’s office?

Has the clanging become so incessant lately that it is like the proverbial car alarm in the parking lot to which no one pays attention?

Accountants hired by the city to get its financial books in order sounded the latest warning. Some of the city’s books “were so messed up” that one accountant admitted she had to back into a number just to get started.

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For a profession that takes pride in organization, accuracy and following strict guidelines, backing into a number is close to committing a mortal sin.

Apparently the books are in such disarray that the accountants have had no time to do the job they were hired to do. Instead of getting the city’s books in order, accountants are still working to close out the books from the last fiscal year.

Anyone watching city clerk Donnie Holloway during the city’s finance meetings or regular council sessions would get the sense that nothing is amiss in his office. Unless prompted by criticism, Holloway’s words and actions portray an office that may need attention but that is fully under control.

The alarms that have been sounding for years offer a different picture.

Soon after Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard was elected, he expressed concerns about the city’s finances. Dillard has repeatedly asked for accurate and up-to-date information from the city clerk. At first, Dillard’s requests appeared to be grandstanding for cameras. After all, the city in recent years has received clean audits.

Last year was no exception, except auditors cited material weaknesses for internal controls and financial reporting. Independent auditors encountered significant obstacles in obtaining the necessary financial information to conduct the audit for the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

The problems were so bad that the auditor could have jeopardized federal funding by issuing a disclaimer in the report.

That was in June. In November, Natchez mayor Butch Brown discovered inaccurate records of business licenses in the city clerk’s office. Software used to track licenses was not being utilized. A number of businesses operating without a license were not paying sales taxes.

More alarm bells sounded when it was discovered that the city clerk’s office was not accurately recording the minutes of aldermen meetings. This came to light when a video of a January 2013 meeting recorded a vote on an agreement between the city and RMB Exploration that was not transcribed in the minutes. RMB is the company that wants to drill on the property of the antebellum house Arlington.

By the time accountants spoke up Tuesday, we all had heard these three alarms, and yet the clerk has made little public response. As aldermen and accountants expressed concern and dismay Tuesday during the finance meeting, Holloway sat and listened without comment.

There are a few more than 1,000 days left before the next city elections. That is 1,000 days for Holloway to get his office in order and to right the ship — a ship that seems to be running adrift.

What the city clerk does is hard to define for most residents. What has transpired in the last few years is an excellent tutorial in what the clerk should not do.

What happens in the next thousand days will give voters a clear idea of how serious the city clerk is about fixing the problems that plague his office.

Right now, Holloway is the only one who can stop alarm bells from ringing. If he doesn’t, voters may have to do it for him.

We will find out in 2016.


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