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Opinion

Vicksburg’s public safety meeting failed to meet its goals

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Photo by David Day, Vicksburg Daily News

The Vicksburg Daily News applauds public servants who make a difference in the daily lives of the city’s residents, and that includes members of its police force, who daily make the decision to protect and serve.

Unfortunately, Thursday night’s public safety meeting fell short of creating the impact the city’s leadership wanted to make.

It’s no secret that Vicksburg has a crime problem, which is also a problem of perception. In recent months, the police department has shared some statistics in an attempt to quash the perception, including arrests made and selected traffic stops.

In September, Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr. called a public safety town hall, which was rescheduled after a particularly violent weekend in the city.

We believe the original goals for the meeting were good.

“It’s my intention for the public to question and give comments to our police department so they can better combat crime and reach our goal of a zero tolerance of crime in Vicksburg,” Flaggs wrote in his Sept. 23 announcement postponing the meeting.

We would love to have a public meeting that works to achieve the mayor’s goal.

The rescheduled meeting made a number of changes to the original format, however, none of which were received with enthusiasm by city residents, as evidenced by the anemic turnout.

One comment on Facebook summed up what we heard from numerous residents: “They want questions in advance so they can answer the softballs and ignore the hard questions. This may as well be a press conference. What’s the point if the public can’t ask anything?”

Originally, the meeting was to be televised on the city’s channel and live streamed on its Facebook page. The rescheduled meeting banned all recording, audio and video, even for the press, which uses recordings to ensure accuracy. A local TV outlet was not allowed in the room.

The original town-hall format allowed for interaction with panelists. The rescheduled meeting specified that all questions had to be emailed in writing beforehand. The VPD selected which of the questions would be answered.

The Vicksburg Daily News submitted 22 questions, none of which were addressed. We did submit one additional question, filling out a card before the meeting, and that question was asked and answered, although without the benefit of a follow-up, the answer was far from satisfactory.

No interaction took place. No follow-up questions were invited.

After answering a dozen pre-selected questions, the meeting was over 22 minutes after it started.

At the beginning of the meeting, moderator Capt. Mike Bryant stated that the goal was to create a dialog between residents and the police force.

That’s a great idea. Dialog and transparency are key to creating good will and cooperation between residents and police.

That goal was not accomplished, either. Of the five panelists on the stage, one made no comments whatsoever. Police Chief Milton Moore, a normally soft-spoken man, was difficult to hear. The other three frequently sounded defensive instead of helpful.

Residents of Vicksburg deserve the opportunity to interact with their public servants. We would be enthusiastic about having a real town hall, where people can ask questions and interact instead of just being talked to. Furthermore, given that many residents are unable to attend meetings, we believe the original plan of televising and streaming the meeting should be revived for any future public-safety meetings.

We understand that a wide-open format can become loud and sometimes rowdy, and we expect that’s not an atmosphere most police officers find comfortable. We invite police leadership to step out on that skinny branch, nonetheless, because what it will do is begin to foster an authentic atmosphere of trust in the community.

Without community trust, police are frequently hamstrung from making the impact they and the mayor seek to make: lowering crime.

Every Vicksburg resident should support that goal. Police leaders should meet the community half way to get there.

Opinion

A tale of two roads

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The Warren County Board of Supervisors share a parking lot with engineering firm Stantec.

A story developed this week regarding the Port Commission, the engineering firm Stantec and County Board of Supervisor’s President, Richard George. As we dive into this story it is important to note there is an election on Tuesday and the timing of this story, by default, has to be highlighted.

The Port Commission oversees the operation of the port and the Ceres Plantation Industrial site. Over the years there have been many conversations regarding building an expansion road to access some of the undeveloped land at the Ceres location, east of the Tyson property. “We’ve looked at a road in that area all the way back to 2013” according to Brian Robbins with Stantec.

On Jan. 24, 2019, Stantec presented a design plan to the Port Commission for a road into the underdeveloped area in the eastern part of the Ceres Industrial site. That plan was for a road that included a bridge and concrete bulkheads to handle the heavy load of 18 wheelers that would, hopefully, use that road. Stantec estimated the cost of designing a permanent industrial access roadway to the roughly 200-acre site would be $424,600.

Part of the design plan Stantec submitted to the Port Commission on Jan. 24, 2019.

At that meeting, the county was represented by Richard George, the president of the Warren County Board of Supervisors. Mr. George, according to a column written by Mike Roach of the Port Commission, recommended that the Port Commission use Stantec’s services because of the long-term and trusted relationship Stantec enjoyed with the county, saying, according to Roach, “at some point in this business, you have to be resigned to the fact that you got to trust the people that work under you.”

Roach wrote in his column: “That was a pretty interesting moment, and I felt uneasy to have an elected official offer such a public endorsement of a contractor currently being paid through the office he represents.”

The Port Commission decided to get competitive bids for the project in spite of the board president’s recommendation. That was, according to Roach, the first time in several years the Port Commission had advertised for engineering services.

The Warren County Board of Supervisors building shares a parking lot with engineering firm Stantec.

The end result was that five companies bid on the design. Stantec was not included in this bidding process and therefore did not submit a bid.

The design that was accepted ended up being for a much shorter road. The firm chosen met several qualifications the Port Commission required, and their estimate for the design came in at $29,000.

The design project road location from the $29,000 bid.

The Vicksburg Daily News reached out to Supervisor Richard George and asked him about the large difference in the bids. “Stantec was presenting a plan that included a much longer road, crossing a creek and constructing a bridge,” George said. “Obviously a much larger design is much more expensive.”

“It was Stantec who said we needed the bridge. We went the cost-effective approach,” Roach said in response. He went on to say that the commission was “led to believe we could only use Stantec as the engineer. We did some checking and discovered the Port Commission could use their own engineer.”

Using a company’s services without competitive bidding is not an uncommon or illegal practice for governmental entities; however, exclusivity makes the process opaque to the public.

Engineers are paid for their informed opinions, and it is not uncommon for engineering firms to disagree on how to best execute on a project. Any given project can expand in cost and time when a bidder, and not the entity contracting for the work, determines the project’s needs.

Without knowing every requirement, nuance and decision, it’s not easy to understand why reaching the same goal for one engineering firm costs $424,600 and another $29,000. Clearly, the scope of one design is more involved and expansive than the other; however, to date, we have yet to see an apples-to-apples comparison of the two plans, or the rationale defending each.

What we do know is the the Port Commission won’t be spending $395,600 more for a project it is satisfied $29,000 will complete. Was it the right decision? We don’t have the answer to that question. We are in the process of gathering additional information on this incident to be able to inform taxpayers of the facts, which at the moment are still cloudy.

Regardless, we urge all governmental entities in Vicksburg to engage in a competitive bidding process for any project that is not a dire emergency. Such a process provides transparency into how our leadership spends our tax dollars, and may provide substantial savings in execution.

Not all projects require competitive bids, nor are the lowest bidders always the best companies to complete the work. The competitive process, however, tends to compel all the players to remain honest brokers as the process is open to public scrutiny. And that’s a good thing.

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The Vicksburg Daily News has requested information on the amount spent by Warren County with Stantec. That information was not available at the time of this column’s publication. We have also requested the details provided to Stantec for the project in question, the details provided to the five other bidders, and the scope and dollar amounts of the competing bids. The Vicksburg Daily News will publish those details once we have the information in hand.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way” – “A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, 1859

 

 

 

 

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Opinion

‘Big or small, let’s save them all.’ Thank you, Riverwalk.

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Photo from the 2018 Bras Along the Bridge Facebook page.

Let’s talk about a subject none of us wants to talk about: the big “C.”

I’m a lucky woman. My family has no history of breast cancer (knock wood). Our big “C” malady is skin cancer, and sun block is my friend.

But as a woman who knows a lot of other women, the subject of breast cancer is never far from our minds or lips. We all know woman we love who have survived the disease. Most of us also know women who haven’t.

Cristin, a co-worker of mine several years back, was in her late 20s when she contracted a particularly virulent strain of breast cancer. Despite the best treatment her insurance and her family and friends could afford, it metastasized quickly to her liver and then to her bones and brain.

From diagnosis to death was less than a year for a beautiful, vibrant and loving woman who had barely begun her life, her marriage and a promising career. Cristin’s big heart and broad smile was always on display: Two weeks before she passed, she gave me a big hug the morning after my cat died. She didn’t ask permission—I was the one who needed a hug at that moment.

It’s always about one woman at a time, fighting with all her heart to survive. It’s always about our mother, our sister, our friend or ourselves, and all our energy gets laser focused on making it through.

Statistically, one in eight of us will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of our lives, meaning the cancer will invade healthy tissues outside of the breast. About 85 to 90 percent of all breast cancers happen as a part of the aging process: two-thirds of breast cancers occur in women over age 55.

Genetics, as in inherited risks, play a part (the risk is higher if your grandmother, mother or sisters developed it) as do lifestyle factors. Weight, exercise, alcohol intake, foods we eat and smoking all have roles to play in our risk of developing and surviving the disease. Rates of breast cancer are highest in white women, but African American women tend to develop more aggressive types at earlier ages. They’re more likely to die of the disease, too.

Just being a woman is the biggest risk of all, though, and that one is out of our control. While it’s true that men also develop breast cancer, they account for less than 1 percent of the more than 330,000 new cases in the U.S. this year. That’s not to minimize their suffering: Some 2,550 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. Still, for women, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer.

But breast cancer isn’t about statistics for those of us fighting the disease or those of us supporting the women fighting it. It’s always about one woman at a time, fighting with all her heart to survive. It’s always about our mother, our sister, our friend or ourselves, and all our energy gets laser focused on making it through.

Here’s the good news: Breast cancer mortality rates have declined steadily over the years. Today, nearly 90 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer will survive to live at least another five years after diagnosis. As with almost any cancer, the earlier it’s found, the better the outcome. Survival at Stage 1 is 100 percent. At Stage 4, it drops to 22 percent.

Early detection is key, as well as continued research into the disease. Decades ago, a rise in cancers found early with increased numbers of mammograms corresponded with a drop in cancer mortality rates. Then, a big drop in breast cancers among older women occurred when the connection was made between hormone replacement therapy and breast cancer.

Every year, more research results in more lives saved. And while lots of folks find objections to pink ribbons and the marketing of awareness events, the bottom line is that more money directed toward research means a better outcome sooner.

Each year for the past 12 years, Riverwalk Casino Hotel has collected bras throughout the month of October in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For every bra collected, Riverwalk has donated $1 to the American Cancer Society. Then, in November, those bras are strung across the Old Vicksburg Bridge to make sure no one misses the message.

I’m all in favor of doing brave, in-your-face things to call attention to important issues. Bras Along the Bridge is just such an event. It’s more than appropriate to display what supports the girls to, well, support the girls. Last year’s event raised $11,612.

You still have time to donate your bras, which will be collected through Oct. 31. Raggedy or pristine, their condition doesn’t matter. You can find all the drop off locations at this link: https://www.riverwalkvicksburg.com/bras-along-the-bridge-2019/.

Then, on Saturday, Nov. 2, come out to walk the bra-lined bridge and see Riverwalk present a big, fat check to help find a cure.

Do it for yourself and for every woman in your life. Big or small, let’s save them all.

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Opinion

Let’s talk about driving in the rain

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There were no injuries in this four vehicle accident on I-20 at the Old Highway 27 overpass.

The past week has seen a lot of rain hit the Vicksburg, Warren County area.

 

After a long, hot and dry August and September, the first big rain on Oct. 15  brought up a lot of road oils and grime, making the roadways slippery and treacherous. There were over a dozen reported accidents in the area that day. Thank goodness there were no serious injuries.

Yesterday’s rain saw an abundance of accidents once again. Four of those accidents happened on Interstate 20 westbound from the Old Highway 27 bridge to the Halls Ferry Road exit. Undoubtedly, highway speeds played a part.

This accident late in the evening last night on Interstate 20 in front of Zsa Zsa’s.

Law enforcement and first responders were put in a situation of risking their lives to help those who were involved in the accidents while making sure the oncoming traffic moved safely through the area.

Most of us see law enforcement as the heavies who pass out tickets and cause stress when they are behind us on the road. If you worked a couple of accidents—or dozens as the Vicksburg Daily News has done over the past week—you would see law enforcement as people who take your safety seriously. That includes writing tickets to remind you that speed kills.

Every law enforcement officer who has been on the job for a few years has worked an accident where someone did not survive. Years after the fact, they can describe to you, in great detail, the ghastly nuances of another person’s last seconds on earth.

“She was upside down in the ditch, and I held her head above the water. I watched her eyes. The eyes are what stay with you.” said one long-time officer who, years later, is still stunned by the moment.

Every person involved in accident replays the event in their minds and tries to cover their actions or make sure the improper actions of the other person are well known.

Of all the accidents we’ve covered, most were completely avoidable. In one, a vehicle from the oncoming lane flipped a driver’s trailer as he was passing by. The driver had no where to go. He had traveled that same road at that same time every day for years. On that day, it was the wrong place and the wrong time. He did not survive the wreck.

She knows how lucky she is to have walked away from all that damage to her vehicle.

Having been involved in a serious accident years ago, I know that if I wasn’t distracted, my accident wouldn’t have happened.

We are in a situation in Vicksburg where law-enforcement resources are stretched thin. The Vicksburg Police Department doesn’t have the manpower to sit on the roadways and pass out tickets like they used to do.

Somewhere during Mayor Laurence Leyens’ administration, a program of cost cutting was begun. That cost cutting included coming up with a formula for the optimum number of police officers to have on the street. A lot of money was saved by reducing the number of officers through attrition and strict policies. Nonetheless, Vicksburg needs enough officers to cover the calls that come in and do the job of effectively policing the community.

More than a decade later, the city is struggling to hit the “optimum” number.

There are a lot of reasons for that, and the easy targets are Police Chief Milton Moore, and Police Commissioner (and Mayor) George Flaggs Jr. They are the ones in charge, and the buck should stop with them.

On the other hand, they are also held to an unobtainable standard by a reactionary community and press who expect super human results while not raising taxes. We want police looking the other way while we go 40 mph in the 30-mile-per-hour zone. It’s a tough job in a small town where everyone knows you, and everyone knows better.

Regardless, it is their mandate to get the job done.

After working all these accidents and having the privilege of doing so from an observers standpoint, we think it is time to crack down on speeders, especially on the Interstate.

There are a thousand other problems and things we could and should focus on, but this last week has been brutal. The Vicksburg Daily News has had enough of witnessing people walk away from a devastating amount of damage. Hopefully, you’ve had your fill, too.

We sincerely hope the reorganization of the police department, which Flaggs will announce tomorrow, includes the funding to increase the numbers of officers on our streets.

As the Mayor loves to say, pay does not impact performance. We agree. But pay is a huge factor in hiring and retention.

How ironic that money we’ve been saving in the city budget goes into a rainy-day fund. It sure has been raining.

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