JACKSON The Jackson Redevelopment Authority moved forward last Wednesday to develop a deal to build a new hotel downtown near the Jackson Convention Complex by notifying the City of Jackson of its intent, and criticizing recent articles in another newspaper about the companies involved in the deal.
"As I read the newspaper, that position becomes apparently clear and that it is very important that it is understood, that we as a board are not going to render decisions based on innuendo, newspaper publications, and false, misleading statements that transpire in our community," McKinley Alexander, chairman of the JRA's board of commissioners, told those gathered at the meeting.
Those articles accused the JRA of choosing proposals without properly vetting them. The two companies involved with the proposal are Engineering Design Technologies and Mississippi Developers LLC. The JRA board voted Wednesday to send notice to the City of Jackson their intention to move forward with the proposal. Alexander said after the meeting that the JRA intended to move toward a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, which will be the next step on the road to a final contract.
EDT is a large, multi-state business with offices all over the south, including Atlanta and Savannah, Ga.; Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile, Ala., and Washington, D.C. Calls to EDT's headquarters and Birmingham office were not returned by press time.
Mitzi Bickers, a well-known Democratic organizer from Atlanta and a Yarber supporter who donated $4,000 to his campaign, is listed as the registered agent for Mississippi Developers, LLC. Keyla A. Jackson is listed as the "organizer" of the company, according to the Mississippi secretary of state's website, which also lists her address in Atlanta. Calls made to the only number available for Jackson were to a family address, and although messages for her were left there, they have not been returned as of press time.
Alexander spoke of efforts by the board to remain independent of the political mechanizations of the city and council, even as next year's mayoral race looms around the corner.
"It is not the responsibility of the board to engage in political activities where our support of persons that aspire to political office or who aspire to control, control us and our action as board members. I, as a board member and as chair, will not be intimidated," Alexander said.
Alexander alluded to influence, perhaps negative influence, being placed on members of the board by "losing bidders," although he would not state to whom he was referring. "The board of commissioners must not succumb to bullying efforts of potential developers in the decision-making process. We must not allow losing bidders to dictate to us how to move forward. If we do this, what are we doing as a board?" he said.
"I refuse to allow this board, while I chair it, to be inactive, as it relates to trying to help move Jackson forward. It doesn't matter who the mayor is. It doesn't matter who the city councilmen are. It doesn't matter who our congressmen are. It doesn't matter who the governor is. What matters is the citizenry of Jackson, the taxpayers," Alexander said.
The board, under Alexander's direction, agreed to move forward with the first stages of forming a formal deal with EDT, but sidestepped hiring the company it had intended to use to vet the arrangement, Comer Capital, after one of the commissioners, Jennifer Johnson, had questions about the firm's relationship with the City of Jackson.
The Mississippi secretary of state's website lists Brandon Comer of Jackson as the president.
"We might have benefited from more discussion," Johnson said. "I am trying to be careful in discussing this."
Johnson passed around an agenda from a March 2015 meeting of the Jackson City Council, on which an agenda item proposes employing Comer Capital as a "municipal adviser" for the city.
Johnson was unsure whether that constituted a conflict of interest.
The agenda for the March 5, 2015, meeting of the Jackson City Council included a proposed order to execute "an agreement with Comer Capital Group, LLC, to serve as municipal adviser for the City of Jackson," and attributed the item to Mayor Tony Yarber. The minutes of that same meeting, however, state that "said item was pulled by the administration," meaning the mayor's office.
As a result of this question, after the commissioners inspected the agenda, they decided to approve notifying the city of the EDT proposal selection but not to engage Comer Capital at the moment.
"That in itself is enough for us to be concerned about taking an action when we have that information at hand, and I would ask commissioners, since that information is on hand, not to act on that engagement at this point and time," Alexander said.
Brandon L. Comer, namesake, owner and managing partner of the firm, stated that the agreement the agenda in 2015 referred to was a one-time bond consultancy, and that he does not, at the moment, have any sort of professional relationship with the city.
"We did work on a transaction for the City of Jackson. It was for a particular municipal bond transaction. It was not for continuing services," Comer said during a phone interview on May 26.
Comer said he had not spoken with the JRA about the agenda item and his relationship, or lack thereof, with the city, yet.
But the commissioners declined to pursue a relationship with Comer at the meeting. Johnson said she did not want to create the appearance of an unethical relationship.
"We received the information for Comer Capital, (and) actually once I looked, did some research. I realized had met him before, and I know who he is. I believe he is currently co-(financial adviser) with the City of Jackson, and suspect that might be a conflict for him to serve in the same capacity for us, particularly for this transaction that will also involve the City of Jackson and their property," Johnson said.
Alexander, the chairman, said during the meeting that it was most important that the development of the city move forward.
"We do know that we are ready to begin to engage in the discussion necessary to get an MOU, so that the project can move forward," Alexander said.
The Jackson Free Press filed a public-records request for the complete EDT-Mississippi Developers proposal and as of press time has not received a copy.
Email city reporter Tim Summers, Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org. See more local news at jfp.ms/localnews.