Has depot issue become divisive?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 27, 2015

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Board of Aldermen’s Nov. 12 decision to lease the former Mississippi River Valley Depot building has come under fire this week for not only legal reasons, but in debates about the state flag.

Natchez resident Gwen Ball has filed a lawsuit regarding the city’s decision to lease the depot to a company led by New Orleans Hotel Consultants President Warren Reuther. New Orleans Hotel Consultants owns the Natchez Grand Hotel and manages the city-owned Natchez Convention Center through a contract with the city.

On Nov. 12, Mayor Butch Brown cast a 3-3 tie-breaking vote in favor of leasing the depot to Reuther’s company.

Ward 2 Alderman Rickey Gray voiced concerns at the Dec. 15 Natchez Board of Aldermen meeting about the tone of recent discussions.

“Fussing and fighting over a depot is just going to divide us,” Gray said. “I don’t want to see my community divided.”

Gray, who voted in favor of leasing the depot, said the debate has only come up after the vote, not before.

“No one had a problem with the vote I made, that I know of,” Gray said. “Now everybody’s got a problem.”

Gray said during the meeting he does not feel he made the wrong decision.

“Every decision I make I pray about it,” Gray said. “The Lord didn’t tell me I was doing something wrong.”

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Carter Smith, who voted against the depot contract Nov. 12, said in her report at the Dec. 15 meeting she did not think it was appropriate for city government to use MS Code 57-7-1 to sell or lease public property. MS Code 57-7-1 allows governments to sell or lease surplus properties for industrial and commercial purposes.

“We don’t want to appear that we’re handpicking people to get things in the city,” she said at the meeting.

Smith said at the meeting she was informed by City Attorney Hyde Carby she could not make a motion to rescind the city’s decision to enter into the contract based on Robert’s Rules of Order.

Robert’s Rules of Order provide guidelines for how public bodies can conduct public business.

After the meeting, Smith said she was looking into Robert’s Rules to make sure that is the case.

“I think it is important to restore public trust, which was why I checked into rescinding the action,” Smith said after the meeting. “But I was told I could not make the motion to rescind (because) I was on the non-prevailing side (of the board’s vote on the depot).”

One high-profile local resident has also voiced his disagreement with the board’s action.

Gray read portions of a letter at the meeting he said he received from Greg Iles, a local novelist.

“You voted to ensure the Confederate battle flag would be plastered all over the depot for the next 15 years, doing terrible damage to the credibility of the city,” Gray read from Iles’ letter.

Gray said he found Iles’ letter offensive because it was addressed to himself, Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, and Tony Fields, the three black members of the board.

“You need to contact all of us,” Gray said. “If you think it’s a white matter, don’t just contact white aldermen, if you think it’s a black matter, don’t just contact black aldermen. That won’t move us forward.”

Iles said he contacted the three black aldermen because they were the ones who voted in favor of the depot deal.

Iles said he pointed out the flag issue in order to demonstrate how little the aldermen understood the deal they had just agreed to.

Iles described the flag as a “side issue” to his greater objections to the depot deal.

“The way this deal was done prevented native Natchezians —both black and white — from having a chance to bid on the Depot property,” Iles said. “All this suggested to me that these aldermen had not thoroughly studied the particulars or implications of this lease at the time they voted for it.”

Iles said he mentioned the flag in his letter because he thought the Old South Trading Post would be returning to its former Depot location as part of the city’s deal with the Reuthers.

Local hotelier Nancy Reuther, who with her husband Warren Reuther was awarded the city’s contract for the depot, said the flag was not part of her vision for the building’s décor.

“We don’t know who or what (will lease the space,) but it will all be very nice looking, that’s for sure,” Nancy Reuther said. “We’re just on hold right now waiting to find out the outcome of the lawsuit.”

Some of the depot’s interior space will become an information kiosk and possibly a gift shop run by the Reuthers, but some space will be rented out.

“To have a public building that would use the flag for décor, I think is pretty outrageous,” she said. “I don’t think it would be appropriate.”

Instead, Reuther said she intends to restore the depot to its original aesthetic.

“We want it to look more original, kind of that rustic look,” Reuther said.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said the board’s action on the flag would have to go beyond the scope of the depot, she said.

“Maybe we could remove the flag from all city buildings and pass that on to the county, and send a resolution to State of Mississippi,” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “I invite Mr. Iles to come down here and make his feelings really known about the state flag.”

Iles said his opinion about the flag’s Confederate imagery is already well known, but the issue is beside the point.

“The Confederate merchandise issue is only a minor sidelight of the Depot deal, and Mr. Gray knows that,” Iles said. “This lease agreement, both in its unfavorable terms to the taxpayers of Natchez, and in the legal sidestepping of proper process that brought it about, is emblematic of what has been wrong with our city government for a long time.”