A debate has heated up over proposed changes in Bay St. Louis’ minority Third Ward, with some citizens fighting a move to rezone two residential properties as commercial, and saying their own City Council representative has a conflict of interest in the matter.
One of the properties proposed for rezoning, located at Washington and St. Francis Streets,
is owned by Power House of Deliverance Ministries, Inc., according to Hancock County land records. Third Ward Councilman Jeffrey Reed has been pushing to have zoning on the land changed from its current zoning of R-2, two-family residential, to C-2, neighborhood commercial.
Powerhouse of Deliverance wants to build ground-floor retail spaces on the property, with residences placed on a second story, Reed said.
Objecting neighbors, including four former City Council members, say the problem lies in Reed’s relationship to Power House of Deliverance. He is senior pastor of the church, was among its founders, and is also listed on state records as president of the organization.
“I believe we have a conflict of interest here,” said longtime city employee and Sycamore Street resident Paula Fairconnetue during a July 19 City Council workshop on the issue. “The property belongs to Mr. Reed and his church. I really don’t believe he should be participating in this.”
‘This is ludicrous’
On Friday, Reed said the conflict allegation is “ludicrous,” since the land is owned by Power House of Deliverance and not by him as an individual. “I just happen to be the senior pastor, the same way Les (Fillingame) happens to be the mayor of Bay St. Louis,” Reed said.
However, he said he will not vote when the City Council considers the issue next Thursday, on advice from the state Ethics Commission. “I’m going to recuse myself from the actual vote,” Reed said.
Aside from the property at Washington and St. Francis, which lies next to Martin Luther King Park, Reed also advocates a zoning change from residential to commercial for a vacant lot at 501 Sycamore St. County records show that land was taken by the state after taxes were not paid by a previous owner. As of Friday, it remained officially listed as state-owned land.
Power House of Deliverance Ministries also owns another piece of land at Sycamore and St. Francis Streets, which formerly housed a now-defunct nightclub.
That land is already zoned C-2, and Power House also wants to develop retail and residential space there, Reed said.
In addition, Reed and his wife individually own 2.2 acres on Washington Street that was the site of a former public housing development before Hurricane Katrina.
Petitions from both sides
When the rezoning process began city-wide, the administration and Slaughter & Associates, a consulting firm, proposed that zoning be changed from residential to commercial on both properties now in dispute.
But the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission overturned that request, and recommended that both parcels remain under current residential zoning. The City Council is scheduled to review the recommendation at 5 p.m. Thursday, when it meets at the city Conference Center at Main Street and U.S. 90.
At a recent planning commission public hearing, Third Ward residents turned out to comment
on the commercial proposal. Residents both favoring and opposing the zoning changes also filed petitions with the city.
Those opposing the change include former City Council members Thomas Farve and Harry Farve, Charles Johnson, and Connie Lampley. Fairconnetue, a city employee who served for years as council clerk, also objected.
When Johnson spoke at the public hearing, he said he had supported Reed as a council candidate. “I lost a lot of friends and family over that, too,” he said, predicting that crime will rise if more commercial areas are added to the quiet neighborhood.
But Marian Vincent, a Diamondhead resident whose husband owns residential and commercial properties in the Third Ward, said the zoning change is necessary for growth.
“Opportunities for small businesses should be available,” she said. “We totally lack shopping opportunities.”
The Mississippi Attorney General’s office has issued numerous opinions through the years on potential conflict of interest issues involving City Council members. But a Sea Coast Echo search of AG’s opinions turned up none dealing with issues similar to the Reed situation.
The Mississippi Ethics Commission did issue an opinion early this year on whether a City Council member employed by a non-profit organization can vote on actions that benefit other non-profit entities associated with directors of the council member’s own employer.
In such a case, the commission said, the council member should refrain from voting on a related issue.
Reed said Friday that he had consulted with City Attorney Donald Rafferty on the propriety of participating in a vote on the zoning changes he is championing. Reed said the Ethics Commission advised that since he and his wife individually own the former public housing site in the middle of the disputed area, he should recuse himself from the actual vote on the rezoning proposals.
However, he said, that will not keep him from participating in a discussion of the issue. “If I don’t stand up and say something, nobody else will say anything,” he said.
Fairconnetue disagrees. “Councilman Reed taking part in this discussion, I don’t believe should be done,” she told the zoning commission.
“As far back as I can remember, there were always businesses” on the two lots, which are now vacant, Reed said. “I’m pushing it because they always had commercial use.”
Harry Farve, who lives on St. Francis Street in between the two potential commercial lots,
noted that Reed lives on Keller Street, nowhere close to the lots he wants rezoned.
“He’s not changing his neighborhood,” Farve said. “He’s changing mine.”
BY: J.R. Welsh
The Sea Coast Echo