City officials say connections to developer, Magnolia Bluffs Casino will not influence Eola decision

Published 12:03 am Monday, March 7, 2016

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Board of Aldermen is slated to decide this week the fate of plans to develop the former Eola Hotel.

The Natchez Planning Commission recently denied plans to develop the hotel into apartments, and the developer’s appeal is scheduled to go before the aldermen at its Tuesday meeting.

While the project is relatively new, the City of Natchez’s relationship with the developer is not.

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Virginia-based attorney Robert Lubin purchased the hotel in late 2014 and closed it. He also owned the hotel from 1994-1998.

Lubin is also a partner in Magnolia Bluffs Casino, which opened in late 2012 on riverfront property the casino leases from the city for $1 million annually.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard is currently employed by Magnolia Bluffs Casino as a subcontractor doing renovation work on the casino’s hotel that opened last week.

Dillard said, however, he does not see an ethical question in the situation.

“I don’t know enough about the (business partnership between Magnolia Bluffs Casino President Kevin Preston and Lubin), I’m sure there is one, but I don’t work for the Eola and I never have,” Dillard said. “I don’t work for Mr. Lubin. I’ve met him once, so I know what he looks like, but that’s about it.”

Mississippi Ethics Commission Assistant Director Chris Graham said the situation involving Dillard’s employment with Magnolia Bluffs and Lubin’s connection to Magnolia Bluffs is a complicated matter.

Graham declined to comment on the specific situation, saying the ethics commission does not comment on such matters in case an opinion is requested or a complaint is filed regarding the matter.

“We wouldn’t want to pre-judge anything,” he said.

Ethics law states that an alderman cannot use his or her official position to obtain monetary benefit from a business that he or she is associated.

It is a technical definition, Graham said.

“I recognize that it gets complicated when common (business) ownership is involved,” Graham said. “Those are some of the most difficult questions.

“Certainly we would encourage any public servant to seek our advice.”

At least two city officials — Mayor Butch Brown and Ward 4 Alderman and mayoral candidate Tony Fields — have received campaign contributions this election cycle from Magnolia Bluffs Casino President Kevin Preston.

“I am receiving campaign contributions (from Preston), but that is with the understanding that I’m going to vote my conscience and not let that determine how I ultimately vote on the situation,” Fields said.

Brown would only get a vote if the aldermen vote results in a tie. He echoed Fields’ thoughts on the contributions.

“(The contributions) would be disclosed (on campaign finance reports), so I don’t think it would be an issue,” Brown said.

When asked, the rest of the aldermen said they had no connections to Lubin or Magnolia Bluffs and had not received campaign contributions from them. Interim Ward 2 Alderwoman Mary Lee Toles could not be reached for comment. Toles is temporarily filling the Ward 2 seat left vacant when Rickey Gray was elected a county supervisor. Toles is not running for election.

Although the city has a history with Lubin and Magnolia Bluffs, and the aldermen have expressed gratitude for the casino opening in the city, they all said that relationship would not affect their decision on the Eola.

“I feel like they are two separate entities and two separate situations that have to be looked at objectively,” Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith said.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said the aldermen have a very specific job of looking at the plans and how they relate to city ordinances.

“I think we will be able to make an objective decision,” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “These are two separate situations, and, of course, we try to support the casino, but it’s a separate situation.”

Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery said he thinks the plans should go back to the planning commission.

“I don’t think it’s the aldermen’s job to decide those issues,” he said.

Dillard said he feels the same.

“You can’t just appeal because you didn’t like the decision,” Dillard said. “If the planning commission did not err in their decision, I think it should go back to them.”

The aldermen are scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. Tuesday in the Natchez City Council Chambers.

Local attorney, who also works for the city as municipal judge pro tem, Tony Heidelberg, who represents the Eola, said the project may be moved from the agenda because of a conflict on his schedule.