Frustrations, tempers flare at aldermen meeting

Published 5:53 pm Tuesday, November 9, 2021

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NATCHEZ — Officials shouted over each other and Mayor Dan Gibson banged his gavel numerous times in an effort to gain order as tempers flared at Tuesday’s meeting of the Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen.

Tensions, which have been bubbling just beneath the surface for months, seemed to come to a head when Ward 4 Alderwoman Felicia Irving lashed out at her fellow aldermen, specifically Ward 1 Alderwoman Valencia Hall, claiming she had been disrespected by her by not being notified of a Natchez High School project that took place last Saturday at Jack Waite Park, which is in Irving’s ward.

Hall, who is chairperson of the city’s parks and recreation commission, earlier presented Natchez High School senior Bert Hughes Jr., who arranged for 14 of his classmates in Mrs. Stark’s class to spend last Saturday painting, picking up trash and repairing equipment at Jack Waite Park.

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Hughes addressed the aldermen, telling them he hopes the work he and his classmates did would inspire others to do the same.

“We were looking for a way to give back to our community,” Hughes said. “We would like to do more work if we can.”

Hughes, who said he plans to attend the University of Southern Mississippi next year and study psychology, is this year’s Mr. National Honor Society at the high school and was recently the football team’s defensive player of the week.

After a photo opportunity with the mayor and aldermen and Hughes and his mother, Irving asked to address the board.

“I want to address the elephant in the room, Mr. Mayor,” Irving said, as aldermen returned to their assigned seats at the dais. “I want to talk about disrespect. This was a project in my ward and I knew nothing about it.”

Gibson quickly shut down Irving, telling her it was not the appropriate time to discuss being disrespected. 

“This is embarrassing and out of place,” Gibson said. Irving continued to argue, but relented.

Later in the meeting during a time set aside for aldermen’s reports, Hall said her involvement in the student project at the park was because of her position on the parks and recreation committee. She also said information about the Jack Waite Park project has been presented on a previous meeting’s agenda.

Ward 2 Alderman Billie Joe Frazier apologized to Hughes for the strife between aldermen that seemed to come from his project at the park.

“We are all elected officials and have certain assignments. I don’t know if it’s lack of communication as a board, but we should be together. As it stands, there is lots of division on this board,” Frazier said. “If you want to help me in my ward, fine, but let me know.”

Frazier’s comments hit a nerve with Gibson, who challenged Frazier.

“I was elected to represent the voters of every ward in this city. Ward 1, Ward 2, Ward 3, Ward 4, Ward 5 and Ward 6,” Gibson said. “I am the mayor of this entire city and if voters in a ward want to meet with me, I will meet with them.”

“Not without letting me know about it,” Frazier said.

“I will not. I do not need your permission to talk to anyone in this city,” Gibson said.

The mayor and Frazier continued to talk over each other until the mayor’s gavel brought the discussion to a close.

However, when time came for Irving’s aldermen’s report, she brought the matter of disrespect and lack of communication up again.

“I’ve been quiet for 16 months. I’ve prayed about it and I hope it changes but as an alderperson I expect mutual respect, and that does not happen,” Irving said.

She claimed the mayor and other aldermen did not notify her about a ribbon cutting at a radio station in her ward.

“I happened to be driving by after picking up my granddaughter at school and wondered what was going on there. There was all these cars and police cars,” Irving said. “I thought the ribbon cutting was at 4 to 7 p.m., but it was at 2 p.m. These things continue to happen. This board needs to have a better relationship but it needs to be grounded in mutual respect.”

Gibson explained that the radio station ribbon cutting was something organized by the Natchez Adams Chamber of Commerce and not the city.
“The emails were sent by the chamber of commerce. They were not generated by the city. That was a chamber event,” Gibson told Irving.

In other business Tuesday, aldermen:

  • Approved a contract with the Butler Snow law firm of Jackson to help with the city’s redistricting. Redistricting takes place after each census if a city’s population shifts. Butler Snow employees will work with the city to determine whether redistricting is necessary and will help the mayor and aldermen through the process.
  • Asked Public Works Director Justin Dollar to present information to the board at its next meeting about pay rates for workers in the department.

“The public works department is down six or seven positions and we just lost another worker,” Gibson said. “People are calling and texting. They are frustrated, and I don’t blame them. We want to do more, but in addition to being down six or seven positions, we also no longer have the 18 inmates who helped us. We are operating with a fraction of the manpower.”

Gibson said city public works employees received an 8 percent pay increase several months ago, but many still make less than $12 an hour.

Frazier agreed. 

“The only way we are going to make it up is with salaries,” he said. “Citizens are frustrated but they fail to realize we don’t have the people. COVID has changed everything. We’re trying to wait and see what the government is going to do. People call, but we don’t have the personnel and we don’t have the money to pay people.”