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Where is public in public hearings?

The Adams County Board of Supervisors stared into a near-empty board room Thursday.

With the exception of a couple of reporters and one interested resident, no one else from the public showed up for the board’s public hearing on the budget.

The scene is the norm for past public hearings in the city and county.

While Mississippi municipalities are required to have a hearing seven days before the budget is passed, there is no such requirement for counties. Supervisors can pass a budget the same day of the public hearing according to the Mississippi Code.

Adams County supervisors wasted no time passing this year’s budget.

The whole process makes me wonder if any comment from the public would have made a difference.

From the description of the crowd — or lack of crowd — Adams County residents are either happy with their local leadership or they believe that showing up to voice their opinion doesn’t make a difference.

Given that supervisors just passed a pay raise that many in the community question, my bet is that there are at least a handful of residents who are angry and feel like supervisors do not care what they think.

City residents may feel the same way when aldermen make decisions about city health insurance without devoting a work session on the subject and after refusing to publicly hear from a company that claims it could save the city nearly a million dollars in health insurance costs.

In the face of a $763,000 deficit, a million dollars would go a long way to helping solve the city’s financial situation.

But a claim to save a million dollars seemed to good to be true for Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard. As an alderman who has cultivated a reputation for pinching pennies and saving the city money, Dillard turned his back on the insurance provider and refused to hear much of anything about the potential savings.

As the health insurance debate was unfolding, residents watching the scene in the city council chambers were sending text messages and emails to the newspaper making sure a reporter was in the room recording the scene which has devolved into accusations of “wining and dining” leaders.

“It is chaos in the board room,” one person texted.

“This is wrong —I hope that it is in the paper for citizens and employees to hear how our board is handling things,” the text message continued.

Another dismayed resident texted, “What a mess.”

Such actions go a long way to explaining why voters feel as if their voices are not being heard.

Even still, if you were looking for one small example that leaders are paying attention to residents’ needs, you might turn to the Natchez City Cemetery Association.

In the face of extreme cuts to their annual funding from the city, the cemetery board members banded together to express their disagreement with the board’s decision during the city’s public hearing last week.

With facts, figures and a detailed explanation of how the cuts would affect the cemetery, the board members convinced city leaders to restore the cuts.

The seven day period required by law gave city leaders the opportunity to restore the cuts and adjust their budget accordingly.

The cemetery’s success is a very thin silver lining in a dark cloud created by the suspicious and selfish actions of local leaders. There should be no wonder why the board room was empty Thursday.

Ben Hillyer is the news editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by email at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com