Rotten fruit is at convention center

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 20, 2017


On Nov. 14, 2006, Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis moved for privatization of Natchez Convention Center operations. Her motion passed unanimously.

On Dec. 20, 2006, an  agreement transferring the management of Natchez Convention Promotion Commission properties from the commission to the city was executed, with the term to end April 30, 2012. On December 31, 2006, the city executed a five-year contract with Warren Reuther’s company to manage commission properties. The effective start date of the Reuther contract was pushed back to Oct. 1, 2007, when the TIF-subsidized Grand Hotel opened.

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On Feb. 14, 2012, Reuther sent the city clerk notice of his company’s intention to exercise its option under the 2006 agreement with the city for an additional five years, to Sept. 30, 2017. On Sept. 10, 2012, Reuther company attorney Walter Brown sent a public record e-mail to the former Natchez mayor, with a copy to the former city attorney that reads as follows:

“I talked to Walter Tipton this week who told me of your meeting that you and I had discussed previously with Warren Reuther and particularly about the two contracts in questions, the

a. City — CVB

b. City —New Orleans Hotel Consultants

c. And the fact that the first contract has not been extended but is the basis upon which the second contract operates and upon which the CVB leases space in the City building — VRTC.”

“As soon as you get this budget business squared away, you probably need to get that contract renewed and out of the way to avoid an audit issue later on in that the CVB is now still transferring hamburger money to the city and leasing space in the VRTC without the benefit of extension of that contract.”

“This would require both the city and the CVB board adopting the extended contract. Let me know if you have any questions. Walter”    

At a work session on Jan. 24, 2013, then City Tourism Director Connie Taunton raised the expired commission agreement issue. The mayor said that it would be voted on, on Feb. 12, 2013.  Despite the admission by Reuther’s attorney in the e-mail and the knowledge of the former mayor and former city attorney that any extension of the 2006 agreement first required action by the commission, there is no evidence found to date in the public records that the required prerequisite to a Reuther contract extension has ever been executed by the commission. In short, the city did not have any authority to extend the 2006 agreement, and its officials knew it, because the transfer of operations of the convention center by the commission to the city ended in April 2012.  Attorney Brown,  Reuther, the former mayor, former city attorney and convention center manager all knew this before April 2012 and thereafter. They simply bypassed the inconvenient commission, and the band played on. 

The commission is statutorily charged with operating the convention center under legislation written in part, ironically, by Reuther’s attorney. The current commission has been provided with all of the documents that set this out, but has since last September taken no action. The former Commission shut down the $30,000 monthly payments made to the city when its efforts to get to the books were thwarted by the former mayor, and the commission resigned en masse. 

The former commission, led by David Gammill, smelled the rotten fruit and demanded  documents for over a year before the former mayor completely blocked its investigation into tracing its money, sensing lack of oversight or financial controls by the City at its Office of Tourism Management. Fortunately, documents came to light by various means in mid-March 2016 and continue.  It now seems clear that the city either knowingly entered into a contract extension with Reuther’s company without any legal authority to do so, or has just taken no action.

Taxpayers, elected city officials and appointed commission members alike should be outraged by the actions described herein. A clean up and an effort to rebuild public trust is in order. The current commission should immediately shut down all expenditures or transfers of commission funds to the city until this is done. The public needs to know if the current commission is sending $30,000 per month to the city. There is no contract in place to either obligate or allow the commission to make such expenditures. The commission’s funds should not be used to prop up a city that tried to enter a contract it had no authority to enter, and allowed a city department to run wild with no oversight by the city and no accounting controls.              

Paul H. Benoist is a Natchez resident and taxpayer.