By Billy Davis
Panola County supervisors on Monday witnessed an obvious dispute between Longtown fire commissioners and Supervisor Vernice Avant about an appointment to the volunteer fire department.
Commissioners Danny Willard and Herman Bradley requested a replacement on the five-person commission – a request that Avant denounced.
Willard, reading from a formal letter, asked supervisors to replace Paula Askew with Rupert Sanders.
Askew has moved out of the fire district, and has failed to make monthly meetings, and therefore deserves to be replaced, he said.
“And she hasn’t been bonded since 2007,” Willard said, referring to securing an insurance policy.
But the request turned into a legal matter over whether supervisors, who formally make appointments to the board of commissioners, can make an appointment since Askew is still serving as commissioner.
“You, as a board of supervisors, only make appointments to fill a vacancy,” board attorney Bill McKenzie explained.
“There is no vacancy,” Avant responded.
Bradley explained that commissioners had voted to replace Askew and were now asking supervisors to uphold their decision.
“Have y’all voted to remove her?” asked board president Gary Thompson.
“Yes, we have,” Willard and Bradley said in unison.
Fire commissioners serve as a governing body in Panola County’s fire districts, where they oversee department funds. They also can set rules and regulations.
The Board of Supervisors routinely approves fire commissioner appointments, without much fanfare, when a commissioner resigns or moves.
Panola Emergency Management director Daniel Cole typically brings those recommendations to supervisors for their approval. His duties include serving as fire coordinator for the county.
Avant, when she explained her opposition to Sanders’ appointment, admitted that Askew had moved out of the county but now plans to return after the death of her mother.
“My recommendation is to allow (Askew) to serve because she’s moving back,” Avant told the board.
Avant also said the fire commissioners had moved the meeting time without notifying Askew, who found the fire department locked when she tried to attend the June meeting.
“If she came to the meetings, she would know we changed the time,” Bradley shot back.
Thompson halted the back-and-forth banter after a third fire commissioner, Howard Eppinger, joined the argument to complain about the new meeting time.
“The question is whether Ms. Askew lives in the district,” Thompson, his hands raised to cease the arguing, told the crowded boardroom.
The fire department’s by-laws likely require her to reside in Longtown, Thompson went on to explain.
After the banter died down, supervisors asked Chancery Clerk Jim Pitcock to research Askew’s insurance bond and report his findings.
Supervisor Bubba Waldrup also asked Willard and Bradley to produce commissioner minutes that record a vote to appoint Sanders.
Those findings will likely be presented at next Monday’s meeting in Batesville.
Cole also suggested that Mississippi’s state fire coordinator could attend the Batesville meeting to help clarify any legal questions. Supervisors asked Cole to invite him to the meeting.
In other county business:
•McKenzie announced that Rolando Foods president Roland Butler had cancelled his planned appearance due to medical procedure for a “kidney stone attack.”
The board attorney held up medical records, which he received from Butler, as evidence of his health problems.
“He said he will reschedule for next Monday,” McKenzie reported.
•Supervisors postponed action on a request from the North Delta Enterprise Community in Sardis to renew a rent-free lease on a county-owned building. The 10-year lease expires this year.
Avant, who works for the Enterprise Community, made the request.
Her late husband, Robert, helped bring the non-profit organization to Panola County and served as its director.
The board voted to view the building before deciding about the rent. Avant voted along with the board.
• Cole and supervisors announced that county government is now accepting applications for a flood plain manager/building inspector, a full-time county position.
The full-time position became necessary when the state required that a county employee oversee the flood plain permits.
The county engineer’s office had been overseeing the permits before the change was mandated.
The building inspector job is in the works after supervisors and the county land development commission agreed there is a need for building codes in unincorporated Panola County.
The commission and supervisors are cooperating on a list of building codes.
The job qualifications are posted at the county courthouses in Batesville and Sardis, and at the county administrator’s office in Batesville.
Cole also reported that an audit of Panola County’s flood plain permitting process found 11 deficiencies that are currently being addressed.
The flood plain audit was overseen by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
•Thompson announced that he has appointed Danny Holland of Batesville to serve on the land development commission.
Holland’s appointment came after the resignation of a commissioner in May.
Supervisors are allowed to make two appointments to the 10-member commission.