Odds, logic stacked against land use plan

Published 12:01 am Sunday, May 31, 2015

Louisiana politics are notoriously ugly. Normally the worst occurs in Baton Rouge or New Orleans.

But recently, something unpleasant has reared its head in our backyard.

The problems centers on a plan by the City of Vidalia to borrow $7 million to purchase and develop a large section of land across from Walmart on U.S. 84.

Email newsletter signup

The details that have come forth are a bit like layers of a political onion that slough off in a never-ending spiral of concerns.

The land in question has been for sale for years, but presumably had sparked little interest.

Enter the City of Vidalia, which seemingly has never met a large project it didn’t feel it could tackle.

That is, in some ways, a great trait provided the majority of the people for whom the government represents and works understand and approve.

In the case of the land deal, it certainly seemed to be operating under-the-radar until some public scrutiny surfaced, ahead of the Louisiana State Bond Commission’s approval process.

When the bond commission learned that the project seemingly had some conflicts and may have been operating in stealth mode, the commission hit the pause button.

Since that time, the public has finally learned a great deal about what is planned for the development.

First up, a few years ago, Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland and some of his friends were partnered together in the ownership of a large portion of the property in question. Copeland got out of the deal a few years ago, and said he lost money in the investment as the investors carried a heavy bank note while trying to sell the property.

Copeland’s prior ownership raised flags with many residents.

Copeland himself admitted that the deal could easily look bad, which is why he said early on in the process, he tried to remain at arm’s length from any decisions.

Even if no direct conflict exists, as Copeland suggests, the viability of the plan seems a bit sketchy to Louisiana State Treasurer John Kennedy.

The Republican lambasted Copeland and the project, as did others on the bond commission.

They questioned the use of the hydroelectric power plant funds as a way to pay back the bonds. Another commission member suggested the plan was effectively speculating on a land deal.

Had the matter gone to a vote, based on the comments commissioners made, it would have been killed.

In the end the bond commission suggested that Copeland and the town have an actual, bona fide public hearing, not about the plan on the table at the moment, but about yet another layer of the Vidalia onion, the city’s use of the hydroelectric power plant funds.

Vidalia’s ordinance governing hydro funds has a specific set of priorities on how excess funds should be disbursed. The disbursement options at the discretion of the mayor and board of aldermen are below the rebate to retail customers of the town’s electric power service.

Meaning, the hardworking residents of Vidalia should receive a rebate prior to any new pet projects being backed by the funds.

To their credit, or perhaps fear of state reprisal, city leaders immediately scheduled two public hearings to discuss the possibility of a rebate for electric customers. The first of these will be Tuesday.

Copeland and others will be quick to respond and point out all of the good that’s been done in the city of Vidalia. His arguments come with a tinge of righteous indignation that anyone would question his leadership, motives or plans.

That is, however, the very role of the public’s involvement. Government isn’t as simple as convincing people to vote for you, then operating as if you have free reign until the next election — or at least it’s not supposed to be.

The law seems clear to me, excess funds from the hydro plant need to be returned to the people. That’s the intent anyway.

All of the rest of this is pure politics. The largely Republican bond commission’s public spanking of Copeland may have a lot to do with his gushing support of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu during last fall’s election, or it may truly be that they are more clearly seeing the problem than the small band of people running Vidalia at the moment.

Either way, time will tell.

Rest assured that Copeland and others in the city are likely lobbying to gain support for their plans. Copeland is a master politician and one that doesn’t give up without a fight, even if the odds and logic seem stacked against him.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.