Sumner’s Spoon

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 6, 2008

Sumner presides with spoon, drops surprise

By John Howell Sr.

Four days after taking office, Como Mayor Judy Sumner found a full plate of municipal quandaries by the time of her first board meeting Tuesday night.

She attacked them with a spoon.

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Lacking a mayoral gavel in the Como library meeting room where town meetings are often held to accommodate the crowd of citizens who attend, Sumner occasionally rapped a teaspoon against a glass of water to the remind constituents to lower voices and speak one at a time.

Using her spoon sparingly, Sumner navigated aldermen through the two and one half hours with decorum largely intact.

She saved her bombshell until late in the evening, and then reported to aldermen and citizens about the Monday visit by officials of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) who ordered the town to immediately cut off Thomasville Metal Fabricators from the town’s sewer system.

Hazardous waste from the facility is periodically discharged into Como’s sewerage, which is designed only for domestic waste, Sumner said.

“We have to cut the factory off immediately; they’ve been dumping in our sewer two times a year,” Sumner told surprised citizens and town officials. Alderman Clark Gregory visited the site with Sumner, she said. She said fines for non-compliance could total $800,000.

Thomasville employs about 50 people, Sumner said. The effect of the sewer shutdown on production at the facility was not yet known, she added.

Town board attorney Parker Still agreed to contact MDEQ and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine if the response of a hazardous materials handling team is needed.

“I don’t want the city to get hung out,” Still said, expressing control about a liability for a future cleanup at the site.

Aldermen approved Still’s contact with appropriate agencies by a 3 to 0 vote — Gregory, Forster Ruhl and Bill Mitchell.

Alderman Everette Hill was out of town and unable to attend. Alderman Ruby Higgenbotham had left after a confrontation and outburst prompted by Ruhl’s motion and discussion of a police commission.

An ad hoc police commission was established earlier this year.

“Who is on the commission?” Sumner asked.

Joe Harper, a Como resident who retired from the Massachusetts State Police and who later served with a sheriff’s department in a metropolitan Florida county, said that the chief of police at Northwest Mississippi Community College, a retired chief of the Senatobia Police Department, had sat on the commission along with himself, Alderman Hill and Dan Smith. All are Como residents.

“The chief would be responsible to them, the department accountable to the commission?” asked the mayor.

“If you’re offering all this help, why is it you’re trying so hard to … get rid of Cleve,” Higgenbotham said, her voice rising. “This has come up every meeting; didn’t y’all hear what the mayor said?” Higgenbotham continued as Sumner rapped her spoon.

Sumner had earlier in the meeting praised Police Chief Cleve Gale and his officers for their cooperation during her first weekend as mayor.

Higgenbotham’s volume continued to rise as audience member Rachel Powell challenged Higgenbotham’s statements.

The alderman rose and moved toward the exit door at the back of the room which was near where Powell stood. Town police officers and Deputy Sheriff Otis Griffin quieted the argument. Higgenbotham left the meeting and did not return.

“I am appalled at y’all,” Sumner said forcefully amid the crescendo of voices.

The mayor returned to her questions about the commission, asking for a mission statement to be included. An audience member suggested its formation along the lines of a planning commission where each alderman gets one appointment.

Ruhl made a motion to empower a five member police commission to adopt a charter and mission statement and to advise the police department.

“You’re going to have more members than you’re going to have police,” Chief Gayle quipped from the back of the room, prompting a sprinkling of laughter.

“If I need one to assist an arrest, can they help on that?”

After Alderman Mitchell’s second, Ruhl’s motion passed 3 to 0.