The Disturbing Favoritism of Ocean Springs Government

pottedflowersImagine if your child came home from school one day and announced that she had received an “F” on her test because the teacher refused to answer her questions during a study session in class. You would certainly be puzzled as to why that was so. But then imagine how angry you would be if you learned that the teacher had randomly chosen a few students to assist, while ignoring the rest. Perhaps the teacher chose only the students he likes. Perhaps he chose them based upon where they sit in the classroom, or whether they smile often. It would not matter why the teacher made such an arbitrary choice … it would be wrong.

What if your elementary child’s principal decided that the school needed new equipment for the baseball team? There might be lots of positive ways to raise the funds for such a need, but let’s imagine that the principal in question makes a poor choice. Rather than arranging a fundraiser or seeking donations, let’s imagine that the principal goes through an alphabetical list of all students, choosing the name of every third student. To the parents of each of these students she then sends a bill for $100 while asking nothing of the rest. Would that be just?

We Americans normally recoil in shock when we encounter such examples of unfairness and immorality. For some reason, however, our moral outrage too often fades when it comes to government. As long as it’s being spent in a way that meets our approval we seem quietly unconcerned about the source for public funds. But let’s be honest. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “there is no such thing as public money, there is only taxpayers’ money.” 

The fictional examples I cite above are adequate metaphors for exactly what’s happening in the City of Ocean Springs in that award-winning area of downtown known as “Main Street.” To be sure, Ocean Springs has no street that I’m aware of with that name. “Main Street” is a special program that brings particular privileges to a tiny portion of the city. From what I’m able to determine from the perks provided under the program (some of which are shown here in photographs), it seems to include Washington Avenue from Highway 90 to Porter Street as well as Government Street between Washington and the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center.

benchOSIf you happen to own a business in this privileged area, you are fortunate indeed. The smile of city governance falls upon you with great regularity, as do the dollars of your fellow taxpayers. The Main Street Program is the result of a “strong partnership” between the city government and the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce (or, as I prefer to call it, the Chamber For Some But Not For Others).

To grasp the full extent of the difference between “Main Street” and the other streets of the city, just wander a few dozen yards off the exalted path to view those businesses on side streets. You will notice that the sidewalks get less attention (if they exist at all) and there are usually no stylish street signs or lamp posts. Neither will you find the sturdy, extra-large benches or the metal garbage receptacles that line Washington and Government Streets. Most noticeable of all is the absence of lovely decorative flower pots and floral gardens tended by city employees. Outside the “Main Street” project, the beauty you encounter–and there is much beauty in Ocean Springs–is paid for by property owners themselves. They receive no support from city coffers, no appreciation from city leaders, and very little attention from those leaders (unless they happen to get behind in their taxes or forget to renew their business license).

In the interest of integrity I happily point out to you, dear reader, that my wife and I own a small business in downtown Ocean Springs known as Lagniappe Restaurant & Catering. We dropped our membership in the Chamber of Commerce when we realized the lack of equity in the way it showers attention on one part of town above all others.

Because we serve prepared food, our city leaders have seen to it that our customers pay 2% more in sales tax than other types of businesses in Ocean Springs. Nonetheless, because we are not on “Main Street,” we purchase and plant our own flowers. We pay someone from our own pockets to cut the grass. Any outdoor furniture or trash receptacles we have on our property are purchased and maintained at our own expense. We don’t expect our neighbors or fellow business owners to pay for the perks that make our location attractive.

Fortunately for the municipal budget, there is no sidewalk in front of our business. The city doesn’t have to find the money to keep it in good repair since it doesn’t exist. We get lots of foot traffic in our neighborhood but for some reason the city doesn’t think the pedestrians on our street deserve sidewalks. Sometimes we get elderly people walking past or driving their handicap scooters as they go between the Villa Maria Retirement Community and Hartz Fried Chicken. They do their best to stumble or scoot by, dodging traffic and the uneven edges of street pavement.

Sign.FlowersPerhaps at our business we should install a sign on the lawn that reads, “No Municipal Funds Used in the Upkeep of This Property.” To do so, I’m sure we’d have to apply and pay for a sign permit. But here’s the good news about that sign fee. I’m sure the City of Ocean Springs and the Chamber of Commerce would be delighted to have a few more dollars to spend on “Main Street.”

I realize taxes are a necessity for every community. But a sense of fairness would be appreciated if it showed itself among our city leaders. Taxing one particular type of business seems unfair when the revenue is going to benefits for everyone. On the other hand, taxing everyone in order to spend those tax dollars on a certain privileged part of town also seems unjust.

Of course, if you have a business on “Main Street,” you may just hope that the owners of the back-street businesses don’t wise up to what’s going on. And if you enjoy the flowers on “Main Street” you may not realize that we who own businesses on the back streets are helping to pay for that lovely vegetation and its upkeep. In either case, I hope you enjoy the beauty provided to you by my taxes. In the meantime I’ll keep trying to save enough to pay for the upkeep of my own business while the burden of taxes gets higher each year.

Every dollar taken from us for taxes is another dollar we can’t spend on improvements to our business. But it’s another dollar that the city can spend on someone else’s business.

I hold no grudges about the success of others. In fact, I celebrate and relish the success of any business owner–especially in the current economic environment. But no business owner or particular section of town should receive more attention from city government than any other.

Of Inaugurations and Irregularities

2013-01-20T170622Z_268443140_TB3E91K1BIGO2_RTRMADP_3_USA-INAUGURATIONToday many will turn their eyes to the United States for the inauguration of the second presidential term of Barack Hussein Obama.  Well, the world will be watching … but Mr. Obama has already been inaugurated for a second time.  The event took place yesterday just before noon, local time, during a brief ceremony in the White House.

This was done in faithfulness to the twentieth amendment to the US Constitution which requires presidents to be sworn in on the 20th day of January following their election.  It’s quite ironic.  The president who seems intent on dismantling the Constitution piecemeal has obediently fulfilled its instruction regarding inauguration. There are only four years left and still so much of America must be remade. No use giving those ridiculous constitutionalists one more issue to whine about.

Much will be made about the fact that an American president of African origins has begun his second term, ostensibly on the day that memorializes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his struggle for civil rights.  Anyone who is aware of our torturous national history regarding slavery and the lynching of the innocent for nothing more than the color of their skin must realize the significance.  For me it merely confirms something I already knew: Americans are quite capable of rising above the problems of their past.

Yet the inauguration of any elected official finds its legitimacy based only upon the guarantee of free and honest elections in which the will of the people is gauged accurately and instituted effectively.  Given what I experienced on election day, it raises my concern to the level of alarm. Sadly, many Americans are becoming far too comfortable with excessive government meddling in their lives. With so much at stake and an electorate so divided as ours, the need for honest election results may be greater than ever.

Let us be mindful that the official tally of presidential votes gave the victory to Obama by a margin just under 5 million votes, or 4.9%.  Less than 60% of eligible voters turned out. Still, in our political system, the state-by-state numbers are more important.  Under our Constitution the president is elected by the people as they are arranged in their sovereign states, not by popular vote.  This affects election strategies–and for those intent on winning at all costs (even fraud), it also affects their planning.

The best way to prevent voter fraud is to prevent those occurrences known as “voter irregularities” (actions, situations, or policies that prevent standard voting procedures).  In signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson reminded us that “the vote is the most powerful instrument devised … for breaking down injustice.”  The law was intended to halt irregularities that discouraged voting by citizens of African descent or preventing their votes from being counted.  To be genuinely effective, everyone who may legally vote must be allowed to do so once, without coercion, and every vote cast must be properly tallied.

Voter irregularities can cast grave doubt upon any election’s outcome.  Given the existence of our electoral college and the importance of swing states that so greatly influence presidential elections, irregularities have far-reaching consequences for the validity of any such election. This remains true even when the mainstream press offers little or no coverage of the matter because of its own bias. As the electoral map demonstrates, it only takes successful campaigns of voter fraud in a couple of the big swing states to turn a presidential election.

It’s not just the actual vote fraud that robs us. Even credible hints of fraud are liable to erode away voter participation. This is why every aspect of an election must be handled with accountability, soberness, and in strict accordance with regulations.  Poll workers (the officials running the precinct) must be diligent for the rights of all and poll watchers for the political parties and candidates must be able to confirm stringent adherence to election law. Anything less may throw a shadow upon results. Confirming the identity of voters is crucial. States need to enact voter ID laws.

What I experienced on election day was nothing less than shocking. More than two months later I’m still disturbed by it. In fact, I’m haunted by it. I’ve been voting since 1978; never have I seen such chaos as on election day 2012. In that chaos there were disturbing irregularities.

On November 6, 2012 I served as a poll watcher (unofficial observer) for the Republican party.  At approximately 2:30 in the afternoon I arrived at my appointed polling location, the Mac McGinty Civic Center located at the Jackson County Fairgrounds in Pascagoula, Mississippi. As I entered the building I was overwhelmed by the noise and lack of order. People were everywhere. They crowded the tables of precinct officials in a scene that resembled a post-holiday sale at Wal-Mart.  Since the poll opened at 7:00 am, I can only presume that this had been taking place for much of the day. For whatever reason, the Republican poll watchers already on duty did not seem as concerned as I. Perhaps they were overwhelmed.

It did not take long for my concern to turn into action.

The purpose of allowing poll watchers is to guarantee proper elections. They are especially important when a precinct votes overwhelmingly in favor of one political party. No matter how a vote turns out, if representatives of both parties agree that the election was fairly run and properly managed, political conflict and legal challenges can be minimized. Poll watchers in Mississippi have no legal authority but they can point out irregularities to those who do have authority. The first place to begin is with the precinct manager, known by law as an election bailiff.

Watching the activity from the seats designated for party poll watchers, I noticed a man going from one voter to another as they stood in front of voting machines. As he approached each voter, he made sure to stand in such a way that I could not clearly see what he was doing. By studying his movement I finally determined that he was speaking to voters as they cast their votes. Mississippi law allows poll workers to assist a voter who asks for help without being prompted to do so, but this clearly was not the case in what I was seeing. I confronted the bailiff and was told that the man was a representative of the Democrat party! As soon as I pointed out that this was improper, the bailiff gently asked the man to depart from the voting area.

I soon noted another disturbing irregularity. In order to cast votes, a voter must secure a key card from an authorized poll worker. It has an appearance similar to a credit card and it unlocks the voting machine to allow voting to take place. It also prevents the voter from voting more than once. After each use it is returned to the proper poll worker and it must be reset for each voter. This is done by the poll worker who uses a small machine into which the key card is placed. This action reprograms the card for use by the next voter.

The security of these key cards is vitally important–as is their correct use. They are not to be reprogrammed unless a voter has be confirmed on the voter roll and after the voter has placed a signature on the sign-in book.

On this day at this precinct the process was not being followed. The bailiff was constantly holding a handful of programmed cards, sometimes even a pocketful of them. At one point he gave several to another poll worker who was moving about near the voting machines. Key cards were being handled and exchanged in multiple ways and I was unable to ascertain exactly what was happening.

Once again–with all the politeness I possess–I spoke with the bailiff. He stammered a bit, almost as if he were surprised to be questioned on this matter. He informed me that it was very busy and he was doing his best to help voters. He also said that sometimes the key cards don’t work when inserted into voting machines. Cards must then be reprogrammed or a new card given.

From my vantage point these explanations seemed inadequate. It is true that if a key card fails to allow a voter to vote, that voter should receive a working card. But a poll worker should confirm the problem before distributing a new card. Otherwise there is no guarantee that a voter only votes once. When he realized that I was watching him closely, the bailiff began checking machines when told of card errors.  Prior to this he did not always do so.

At some point after my arrival I was delighted to see members of the Jackson County Election Commission as they looked closely at the situation. They seemed concerned but they left quickly. It soon became clear that they had contacted the chairman of the commission. Upon his arrival he demanded that more order be brought to the polling environment. His quick action improved the situation but by then the voting hours were more than half over.

I spoke to the  chairman and expressed concern about the irregularities I had seen. He informed me that his power was limited by law. As it turns out, there are five voting districts in Jackson County. Each district has an elected commissioner whose authority is limited to his or her own district. The Fairgrounds precinct is located in District Two where, I was told, the commissioner was a firm Democrat who hired only her fellow Democrats as poll workers. In a perverse and disturbing way, the irregularities I had seen that afternoon suddenly began to make sense.

At that point the commissioner of District Two was pointed out to me. I wondered if it would do any good to speak to her. I realized that it would not, since she was huddled with another lady whom I learned to be chairwoman of the Democrat party for Jackson County. As the District Two commissioner looked on, the Democrat leader inserted herself into the business of the poll workers as if she were a poll worker herself. She even “assisted” voters at voting machines (so she explained to me when she saw me watching closely).

Clearly, a line had been crossed. Primaries are run by parties as they choose candidates but this should not be the case with general elections. Although I count myself among the realists of the world who understand its moral failures, I confess that a sense of hopelessness began to fall upon me at that moment. If several members of the election commission (including the chairman) couldn’t stop these irregularities, how could I?

Did I witness any voter fraud that day? I cannot say that I did. I have no accusations to make with that regard. What I did see, however, was a list of voter irregularities that took place without any hesitancy–almost as if they were understood to be part of the way things are in parts of my county. In some cases my complaints appeared to end the irregularities. In other cases they did not.

Democrat? Republican? Libertarian? Any other party? Your vote should count if you are properly registered and legally eligible. Every such citizen has the right to cast that vote in an environment that is orderly and transparent. Whether they end up in fraudulent votes or not, voting irregularities destroy the trust of citizens for the process.  This erosion is the unfortunate, untold story behind the inauguration of a president or any other elected official.

Ocean Springs Leaders Make the Rules–But They Don’t Want to Abide by Them

Ask yourself a question:  What is the purpose of government?  Most folks will say something “nice” like this:  The purpose of government is to make our lives better.  With appreciation to Captain Kangaroo and all the kids in the kindergarten class, may I suggest that we’ve been fed such horse hooey long enough?

The sad truth of the matter is that every time government “makes our lives better,” it’s done at the expense of someone.  Either everyone gets a benefit paid for by a few, or a chosen few get something that comes at the expense of everyone.

Now let me propose a different explanation for the purpose of government:  The purpose of government is to prevent fraud, abuse, and violence so that the people of any given constituency can pursue the betterment of their own lives and the lives of those they hold dear.  This, I humbly suggest, is the vision of those of us who think that government is best when it governs least, or when it governs only when it must.  Why?  Because governance controls and limits the options of the governed.  This is necessary when the governed foist fraud or misrepresentation upon others, but government is doing so much more than preventing that.  Government seems to be everywhere and in the middle of everything, and citizens seem always to be answering to government representatives.  Imagine how many things our city and county leaders wouldn’t be involved in if they had an understanding of limited government.

On June 15th the City of Ocean Springs is set to open its new $7 Million Sportsplex on Highway 57.  My busy work schedule will make it impossible for me to find the time to enjoy this lovely new facility. I’m a full-time college professor and my wife and I own a business in Ocean Springs.  Like others in our fair city, we’re busy working hard in order to pay city and county taxes.  After all, our leaders have lots of important projects on which to spend that tax money (like the city’s new Sportsplex and the county’s expansion of soccer fields).  My wife and I can’t enjoy these things because we’re working to pay for them.  If county and city officials think they should watch out for our health, however, perhaps they could chip in to buy us an exercise bike for our living room.

Let’s get back to the purpose of government.  Watching some of the leadership of Jackson County and Ocean Springs, one might think they believe the purpose of government is to figure out how to spend all the money they have managed to take from taxpayers.  Now that Ocean Springs has a new Sportsplex, of course it needs a fancy new sign.  It’s not enough to point out the entrance to the facility; Mayor Moran wants a big sign with all the bells and whistles.  She seems to think that citizens aren’t smart enough to learn about the activities at the Sportsplex on their own.  According to the Sun Herald, the sign will have “an area for advertising and en electronic display in the middle to advertise upcoming events.”

There’s just one little problem:  the proposed sign would violate the county sign ordinance (the Sportsplex is not within the city limits so it is subject to county ordinance).  Actually, as county supervisor John McKay pointed out, there really is another problem as well.  You see, one day the city will probably annex the Sportsplex  and here’s a surprise:  the proposed sign would also violate city ordinance.  According to the Sun Herald, Mayor Moran said “it could be considered a billboard.”  That’s an easy solution.  But would it be offered so quickly if the proposed sign was the brainchild of a privately-owned business?

This is but one more example why government that governs too much actually hurts us all.  I am quite sure that the Sportsplex will be lovely, but I’m not so sure it was necessary right now–when the nation’s economy is tattered and nearing a second round of heart palpitations (there’s no recovery yet, folks).  In fact, I’m not so sure that it’s the job of counties and cities to build multimillion-dollar sports complexes.

Of course, if our leaders are going to build such monuments to their own generosity with our money, they also have to advertise them.  And why bother to follow the regulations that are imposed on everyone else?  Governments make the rules.  They don’t have to abide by them.

I applaud Supervisor McKay for questioning the matter of signage.  Let’s hope he doesn’t give in on the matter.  Mr. McKay, if government is going to regulate its citizens, then it must abide by the laws it forces upon us all.  Anything else is plain hypocrisy and abuse of power, even when it comes to “nice” things like the Sportsplex.