By; John Zippert, Co-Publisher
The official agenda distributed for the October 23, 2018 meeting of the Eutaw City Council was deceptively short. No new business was listed and under old business was one item on political signs. This should have been a warning that this would be a divisive meeting where issues dividing the Mayor and Council would come forward and be aired in public. The Mayor asked City Attorney Zane Willingham to present a draft ordinance regulating the display of political signs in the City of Eutaw. Members of the City Council had the proposed ordinance in writing but copies were not distributed to the public at the meeting. Council members did not raise many questions or objections to the sign ordinance. Willingham asked for suggestions on size limitations of political signs and Councilman Joe Lee Powell and others volunteered to provide more input. The Democrat secured a copy of the proposed ordinance after the meeting. The ordinance is very strict on the display of political signs in the City. Section 1 of the proposal says: “ No political sign shall be erected, constructed, posted or painted on any utility pole, tree, bench, fence, or awning; nor attached to any city, county, state or federal roadway, directional sign or informational sign. No signs shall be erected, constructed, or posted on any portion of the Greene County Courthouse Square Historic District.” The proposed ordinance goes on to limit signage to the period between qualification and election. There is a penalty of $25.00 per sign, ascribed to the candidate whose name is on the sign and whose sign is left up more than seven days after an election. Several political observers, consulted by the Democrat, were critical of the sign ordinance as being too restrictive and punitive especially in its limitations on placing signs at the Courthouse Square, where political discourse is expected during elections in a democracy.
Mayor and Council disagree on use of school
The Council then shifted to a discussion of the use of the former Carver School facility, which the City has acquired from the Greene County Board of Education and named the Robert H. Young Civic Center. When the City of Eutaw acquired the school, the Christ Temple Church was already operating a used furniture exchange in a portion of the facility. In July, the City Council passed a motion, proposed by Councilwoman Latasha Johnson, that Christ Temple Church be allowed to operate the furniture business at no cost for up to one year while the City formulated policies and procedures for use of the Robert H. Young Civic Center. The Mayor and City Attorney Zane Willingham submitted a letter, in August, to the church saying that they would have to vacate the building and remove their furniture because the resolution adopted by the City Council was invalid and procedurally incorrect because the property was not declared surplus before it was provided “at no cost” to the church group. The letter from the Mayor gave the church until September 15, 2018 to vacate the city property. The Democrat interviewed Ms. Fannie Grantham, church secretary and spokesperson. Grantham also attended and City Council meeting and tried to get an explanation of the Mayor’s actions on behalf of the City. The Mayor and Willingham insisted that the Council must rescind the “improperly constructed resolution” but no alternatives were offered to the church for utilization of the building or other available city buildings for a rental charge. The Council by a vote of 3 to 2 with the Mayor, Abrams and Powell voting in favor and Councilwomen Johnson and Smith opposed. Councilman LaJeffrey Carpenter was absent. Ms. Grantham says the church has received this furniture as a gift from various sources and provides furniture to people who otherwise cannot afford it, for a donation, which goes toward the costs of hauling the furniture. “We have tried to help people who needed furniture to be able to get it; this is not a business, it is a community service,” says Grantham. At the City Council meeting, Mayor Steele said that he was concerned about providing space in a city owned building for a furniture business that was competing with Spiller’s Furniture and other businesses in the City, who pay for business licenses. After receiving the Mayor’s letter to vacate the school, Grantham says several meetings were held to try to work out a solution with the Mayor. “The church and our non-profit – REACH, offered to pay rent for the space and asked the City to make a proposal. The Mayor said that his plans for the school did not include furniture and no other city buildings, including an out building at the Armory were available. He did offer to sell us a building, that he owned downtown, next to the cleaners, for $65,000,” said Grantham. Grantham says Rev. Barton, who the Mayor has employed to operate a youth sports program at the school has locked up the part of the building where the furniture is located and the church has not been able to get in to use it since the October 23rd meeting. Councilwoman Latasha Johnson says, “The Mayor has been wrong from the beginning on the purchase and use of the Carver School. We were supposed to work on a plan with the Greene County Commission to purchase the school and use it more widely for all of Greene County. The way the Mayor has treated the church is unfair. My original proposal was to allow them to stay and use a part of the building, at no rent, until we made policies for its use. The Mayor does not want to work with the Council.” Councilwoman Sheila H. Smith said, “ I do not understand what the Mayor is doing. He insisted on buying a school, we cannot afford. Our water meters and bills are still not updated. We do not have a budget and we have not paid our bills.” The Mayor says that the City Council has been unwilling to work with him on the development of a program for young people at the Carver School. “ We have been providing opportunities for young people and we are planning for more activities going forward.”