Community Center

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 21, 2009

By Billy Davis

A Longtown fire commissioner was refused reappointment because he was not being “inclusive” about the community’s needs, reported county Supervisor Vernice Avant.

She defended her decision at a tense meeting Tuesday night.

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The meeting, held in Sardis at the county civil defense office, pitted Avant against two commissioners, Danny Willard and Betty Tillman, and Fire Chief Jacob West.

Willard and West had demanded the meeting after Avant refused to reappoint Herman Bradley at the supervisors’ Second District meeting on August 10.

Avant’s action last week came after Bradley, in July, helped scuttle the reappointment of Paula Askew after proving she had moved out of the fire district.

Avant, after defending Askew, has since appointed new commissioner Gregory McGhee.

Chitchat after the Tuesday meeting disclosed that Mrs. Avant’s late husband, Robert Avant, had appointed Bradley to the Longtown Fire Department.  

Panola EMA Director Daniel Cole, acting as mediator at the Tuesday meeting, explained that the meeting was called to settle “differences” between Avant and the fire department.

Supervisor Gary Thompson also interjected at times to stop bantering among the parties.

Supervisor Kelly Morris and Bynum Fire Chief Tony Ragon also attended the meeting, and state fire coordinator Larry Barr had also been invited to be present.

Pressed by West for an explanation, Mrs. Avant said Bradley had been “exclusive,” rather than “inclusive,” because he refused to allow the fire station to be used as a “community center.”

The supervisor went on to explain that Longtown residents have asked her why they can’t use the fire station to hold public events, such as benefits.

“Have they asked?” replied Willard.

“They don’t have to ask,” answered Avant, implying that a request would be turned down.

West interjected that the fire department has set a rental fee for use of the building. Avant then acknowledged that she knew about the fee and agreed with it.

Robert Avant had secured federal grant money to build the fire station, and Mrs. Avant insisted publicly for the first time Tuesday that the fire station had been designed to double as a community center.

Behind the scenes, the tussle over the fire department has been brewing for several months, with Longtown commissioners and West pitted against Avant, who was appointed to her late husband’s seat and is up for re-election in November.

The fire station was designed with three bays for fire trucks and equipment, but it does not include a banquet room or any other other meeting area. It does include a kitchen that is equipped with commercial-grade, stainless steel equipment: a six-burner range, refrigerator, freezer, and icemaker.

 “I want you to think outside the box – five and ten years down the road,” Avant told West and the commissioners. “Remember that it is a community center.”

Turning to Barr, West asked, “Can you legally have the fire station operate as a community center?”

“No,” Barr replied.

Before discussing the “community center,” Avant also explained that she had refused to reappoint Bradley because she wanted commissioners to be spread across the fire district.  

“Nowhere in the statute does it say they have to be spread apart,” West replied. “It doesn’t say they can’t live back door to back door.”

Barr, interjecting in the conversation, said the intent of the state law is for equal representation, though he agreed the law does not set residency requirements.

Thompson, who was clearly agitated by the back-and-forth banter, twice demanded that the topic move back to Avant’s right to appoint fire commissioners.

“Who makes the appointment?” he asked Barr.

“That’s easy,” Barr said. “Supervisors do.”

“Well, that settles it then,” Thompson said. “She makes the appointments.”

Thompson’s voice was rising when he cut off the banter the second time, again stating that Avant had the right under state law to name her appointments.

Ragon, speaking for the first time, cautioned Thompson that pushing for supervisors to pick fire commissioners could disrupt a process that is working well countywide.

“You could open the door for 16 fire commissioner appointments,” said Ragon, referring to several that are upcoming.

 “I would hope I would agree with the recommendations,” Thompson said. “But if I have an issue (with a commissioner) I won’t appoint them.”

As the meeting wound down, Willard and Tillman announced they were resigning in protest.

Cole told The Panolian later, however, that the pair had changed their minds.