Aldermen react to possible hotel deal

Published 12:03 am Sunday, July 26, 2015

NATCHEZ — While whether or not a new hotel will locate to Natchez is still up in the air, some Natchez Board of Aldermen members said a real conflict might be brewing on the ground.

Natchez Mayor Butch Brown first gave notice of the potential for a new hotel coming to Natchez at the board’s last meeting on July 14.

At that meeting, Brown asked for the board’s support for the new name-brand hotel, which would be located somewhere near the Natchez Visitor Reception Center off Canal Street.

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With that support, Brown also mentioned the hotel was seeking a $700,000 tax increment-financing (TIF) bond, which would mean the city would use future tax revenue to finance the cost of building the hotel.

However, Brown did not mention the hotel might be developed on some nine acres of land he owns.

City Attorney Hyde Carby said he has talked minimally with Brown about the legality of a board member entering into a contract with an entity that does business with the city.

“We’ve talked about it, and we’re looking into it to see if there would be an issue,” Carby said. “But that’s sort of the general answer.”

Carby said some restrictions do exist on whether or not a board member can engage with a business deal that would be voted on by the board, but “it’s very complicated,” and he needs to discuss it more with the mayor.

“It depends on the scenario,” he said.

However, while Brown and Carby discuss the legality of the deal, Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery and Ward 4 Alderman Tony Fields said they’re skeptical of the city giving support for a business deal that would benefit the mayor.

“Even if the intentions are good and everything is done the right way, it’s still, in my opinion, a conflict of interest,” Fields said. “We would need to really look deep into it before we agree to anything.”

Fortenbery said if the deal was between Brown and the hotel, he wouldn’t have an issue.

But since Brown asked for the board’s support, Fortenbery said he is wary of the deal.

“He and the city doing a land deal and getting the board to give support, that would be a conflict,” Fortenbery said. “I’m all for selling the property and I’m all for doing business, but we need to do it the right way.”

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, Ward 2 Alderman Rickey Gray and Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Carter Smith said they would all like a concrete answer on the legality of the deal from Carby before giving support.

“If the city is asked to do anything, it could be a conflict of interest,” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “But if it is a private sale between the owner of the property and the person buying the property, I don’t think we would be involved.”

Gray said he needed to research the legality of the deal before he gives his support.

“It would have been helpful if (Brown) would have mentioned to us that the hotel might go on his property,” said Gray, adding that he found out about the possibility of Brown owning the property several days after the board meeting.

Like Arceneaux-Mathis and Gray, Smith said she would like a formal statement from Carby before giving support.

“I’ve been hesitant on all of this,” Smith said. “If there is any kind of ambiguity (on the legality), we would need to look further.”

Carby said since Brown left for D.C. shortly after announcing to the board that a new hotel may locate to Natchez, it’s been difficult to thoroughly discuss the matter further.

He said he expects to have a formal discussion with Brown soon, though.

“It is an issue,” Carby said. “I’m not sure if it will stop the deal from coming through, but it’s something we need to look into.”

Attempts to reach Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard were unsuccessful.