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Sunday Focus: Forums focus on government efficiency

NATCHEZ — Talks of consolidating and merging City of Natchez operations with Adams County operations have been ongoing since at least the 1960s.

As part of the discussion, studies have been conducted on the possible consolidation of the two governments over the years but were largely never acted upon.

Some county and city operations have been consolidated, however, including Emergency 911 operations, collection of city and county taxes, merging of city and county jails and combining fire services.

Those are baby steps, however, compared to some residents’ desires, including a group known as “OneBoard” organized by Natchez Attorney Paul Benoist.

OneBoard advocates abolishing the Natchez city government altogether and merging under one county government, in an effort to reduce expenses and make local government more efficient, according to the organization’s website.

To help educate citizens on the options available for consolidation of county and city governments, the City of Natchez has organized two public forums that will be conducted by experts with the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

“With all the discussions that are out there about how to go forward in the future — we know we have a shrinking population — the better we can be informed, the better the decisions can be made for the future of our town,” said Sarah Carter Smith, Ward 3 Natchez alderman. “It is very important to understand, to be proactive, and make sure that you are informed.”

The first public forum titled “Forms of Local Government” will be 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Natchez Convention Center and a second forum titled “Consolidation of Services” will be 5 p.m. May 21 at the Natchez Convention Center.

Background

Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell said consolidation discussions have been ongoing for many years

“Back when I was on the county board in the ’90s, this was always something that would come up in terms of consolidation of government,” Grennell said, “and so, it has always been something that has been talked about in the community for many years.”

As part of the ongoing consolidation discussion, Grennell said the Natchez Board of Aldermen authorized him last year to put together a committee to start exploring consolidation options. The committee includes Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Debbie Hudson, FOR Natchez President Chesney Doyle, Smith and Grennell.

The committee worked with the Stennis Institute of Government Executive Director and Assistant Research Professor Joseph “Dallas” Breen, Ph.D., for input on the issue of consolidation.

The committee initially proposed a series of four forums on Greater Efficiency in Local Government with experts from the Stennis Institute along with experts from throughout the nation. The cost was estimated at $13,000 to fund travel and lodging for the experts, city officials said.

Adams County Supervisors, however, later refused to help fund the project, so the city scaled the forums back to two meetings with an estimated cost of $5,000, which Grennell said includes funding for travel and lodging for the experts.

The Forums

Breen said the meetings are open to anyone who would like to attend and he encourages everyone to attend.

“What the Institute does, or what we try to do is inform every citizen in Mississippi of anything related to government, governance, politics,” Breen said, adding that the

Institute had several calls in recent months from Natchez and Adams County on the issues of consolidation. “Our discussions led to the question of, ‘Do people really understand the type of government the city of Natchez currently operates under?’ So before you can have these long discussions about efficient public service delivery and cost-effectiveness, you have to understand who can make decisions and what that looks like.”

From that starting point, Breen said the committee agreed to make the first forum about understanding the different forms of government available to municipalities under the Mississippi Code Charter.

Different forms of municipal government available under the Mississippi Code, Breen said, include the mayor-council form of government, often referred to as the “strong mayor” form of government, such as the City of Jackson has in which the mayor has a vote and legislative role on the council. Or, the mayor-board form of government, often referred to as the “weak mayor” form of government, which is most like the city of Natchez government, in which the mayor does not have a vote on the board and serves more in an executive management position, Breen said.

Natchez’s form of government is slightly different from the mayor-board form as defined in the Mississippi Code Charter and under which other cities in the state with the form of government operate, Breen said, because the City of Natchez, which is the oldest incorporated municipality in Mississippi, was incorporated and chartered, before the state of Mississippi ratified its constitution.

“Natchez is actually under its own original private charter,” Breen said. “It is a mayor-board form but … the city’s charter is very similar to the Mississippi Code Charter. There are many similarities. It is just that there are some unique aspects to it.”

Grennell said the city’s unique charter could lead to some confusion in matters of legality.

“Back when I was on the county board,” Grennell said, “county government in Mississippi is really kind of uniform and it is universal. If you had a technical question about the county government, you could easily call the state auditor or the attorney general’s office, and they could answer that question for you because we have state statutes that regulate county government.”

Grennell said he learned after being elected mayor that the state has different forms of municipal government available under the constitution and many cities operate under various forms of government in the state.

“Of course, Natchez is different because it is a special charter,” Grennell said. “… We don’t have a form of government in the sense that it is easier to call the state auditor or the attorney general’s office and ask them a question about a technicality in Natchez because of our special charter because we are older than the state.”

Why attend public forums?

Grennell said initial conversations with Breen concerning consolidation efforts evolved to include discussion of the various forms of government available in the state code.

“The purpose of these public meetings is to educate the public on the various forms of municipal government that exist,” Grennell said.

Breen said he believes people need to understand the options available before making any decisions.

“We (the Stennis Institute) are not out to push any type of one plan or another or this or that,” Breen said. “I’d love for everyone to have the same knowledge we do, so they can make the best decision because what works for Natchez may not work for other places but having that core knowledge can help you make much better communitywide decisions.”

Doyle said she also believes it is important to start any discussion of consolidation of government services from an informed position.

“I’m a documentary film producer, so I have a bias toward the truth,” Doyle said “I’m a non-practicing attorney, which is another profession that deals with the facts and as a documentary film producer, it has always been my motto that fact is so much more exciting than fiction. Fiction can cause fear, anxiety distrust but when you are confident, with your fact-based information, then what you have is the power to make wise decisions. You don’t have to guess. You don’t have to be afraid. You have the facts at your fingertips and you can make up your own mind about it. You don’t have to be swayed by emotional appeals. Get the facts, get the evidence and then make up your own mind.”

The Meetings

4Forms of Local Government, 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Natchez Convention Center: David Parrish and Breen of the Stennis Institute will be accompanying P. Edward French, Ph.D., current department head and professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University (and former Stennis Institute executive director), to Natchez, organizers said. Parris and Breen will help facilitate the session on Local Forms of Municipal Government, including introducing French, who will highlight the current form of government in Natchez, discussing some of the issues/concerns that are relevant to the mayo-board form of government. French also will discuss other forms of government in Mississippi, to provide the interested groups with an understanding of other forms being practiced in the state. Before his academic career, French served as a city manager in Virginia, so organizers said he possesses unique expertise from both the academic and practitioner lens.
4Consolidation of Services, 5 p.m. May 21 at the Natchez Convention Center: David Parrish, Joe Fratesi and Breen of the Stennis Institute will facilitate the discussion on public service consolidation with two experts from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. The two experts, Ted Baggett and Harry Hayes, possess decades of combined experience in local government law and municipal services delivery, organizers said. After consulting with a number of experts throughout the nation, Breen said he determined that these Vinson Institute associates were overwhelmingly recommended as the go-to for expertise on municipal consolidation of services and local government services delivery, organizers said.