Natchez village council settles business despite looming clash of ideologies

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Nathan Wilson
A special called meeting of the Natchez Village Council resulted in three resolutions being unanimously passed and a fourth introduced to much contention.
The introduced resolution will determine whether the village will continue to allow Michel & Pratt Consulting to conduct business with the village of Natchez. Municipalities sign contracts with businesses all the time, but in this case controversy arises because the firm is providing traffic camera speed enforcement to the chagrin of many Natchez residents.
The issue was hotly debated as the mayor, council members, village police and village residents voiced diverging opinions. At the heart of the controversy is whether photo enforcement benefits the village’s safety and finances or is an overall detriment to its citizens and reputation.
Mayor Patsy Ward-Hoover believes the traffic stops risk doing more harm than good by burdening residents with excessive fines, diverting revenue to the private provider and labeling Natchez a speed trap. She fears the negative impressions the public has of photo traffic enforcement will drive away frustrated residents and dissuade private companies from pursuing investments in Natchez. She also expressed concern that the tickets are civil penalties that lack the legal authority of handwritten tickets, and expressed that there is not a formal contract on file stating the terms agreed upon between the village and Michel & Pratt.
Natchez Chief of Police Michael Gillie takes the opposite position by stating that the traffic camera discourages speeding, a public safety concern, and provides funding critical to the village’s operating budget. He cited the police department’s lack of an operational vehicle as evidence of the village’s budgetary limitations. The department’s two vehicles were purchased as surplus from the state police for $1,000 total. One is awaiting authorization for repairs expected to range between $4,000 and $6,000, while the other hasn’t run since the department acquired it. A new vehicle has been ordered using grant funding for the down-payment, but Natchez officials stated they are unsure how the village will afford subsequent payments. Gillie reminded the village council that his department is severely limited in its ability to issue traditional traffic tickets and perform other policing duties without a functional law enforcement vehicle.
Other community members complained about the sizable fines associated with each ticket, instances of mistaken identity and inadequate signage informing drivers of changes to the speed limit. Village alderman McKinley Hoover also questioned how photo enforcement contributes to public safety in the community. Operating the traffic camera reflects a significant use of the department’s resources since officers are employed by the service provider while operating the camera and are not permitted to conduct other duties at the same time. The Natchez police department employs two officers and an elected police chief. Gillie is also employed to work night shifts by the Ringgold police force and the village has historically limited officers to working fewer than 15 hours each week. Mayor Ward-Hoover suggested she is considering changes to the village’s hourly staffing policy, but stated that the police department has failed to issue any hand-written tickets since she assumed office.
Gillie and officer Kenneth O’Con II answered resident’s concerns about photo enforcement. Gillie stated that residents may request a transfer of liability if they are ticketed at a time when another person is operating their vehicle. He said that his ability to adjust tickets downward has been rescinded by the mayor, but that standard ticket amounts reflect values set by the council when the village contracted with a different company called Blue Line Traffic and Services.
O’Con stated that despite the amount deducted by Michel & Pratt, the village retains a larger portion of photo enforcement tickets because of the statutory fees the village is obligated to disburse to other state institutions from traditional traffic tickets. He also suggested immediately after the meeting that operating the traffic camera provides supplemental income for Natchez police officers. He is running against two other candidates to be Robeline’s Chief of Police on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The issue of whether to retain Michel & Pratt’s traffic camera enforcement services and on what terms will be decided by a vote of the village council Sept. 1.
The council also passed resolutions to hire MB Design Consultants for engineering services, to allow the mayor to negotiate contracts with the company and to retain Alex Washington as attorney for the village. Ward-Hoover cited the decision to employ MB Design Consultants as cause for the emergency meeting. The engineering company will assist the village in pursuing a grant for wastewater treatment improvements in the amount of $900,000. The village council’s resolutions are unrelated to a measure passed by Waterworks District two to replace a failing water tank that serves the area.