Maybe it was the length of a meeting that spanned over three hours or maybe the issues.
But regardless of the backdrop, the meeting of the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday devolved over the last 45 minutes into a highly-personal and loud discussion.
The spark was Commissioner Joanna Bryan mentioning a meeting last week with officials at Health Check (see related story A1) during which president and CEO Carol Kelley announced that the company’s planned expansion would not take place in Gulf County.
Bryan said that Kelley noted incentives being offered in Mississippi which were attractive, but also noted that Kelley, in her remarks to local economic, county and municipal officials, said that a significant reason the company would not add 50 new jobs in Gulf County was the environment, particularly the political environment.
“A lot of what she said had to do with the culture, the power structure,” Bryan said, echoing Kelley’s comments, particular Commissioner Carmen McLemore’s characterization of newcomers to the community as “blow-ins.”
“She just doesn’t feel she has the support from this board,” Bryan said.
Commissioner Tan Smiley took exception, saying he talks to people all day and he was tired of any criticism, from Bryan or others coming to the podium of the BOCC.
“I am sick and tired of people putting down this board because you are putting me down,” Smiley said. “I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job.”
McLemore joined the fray, saying he knew he had made mistakes, but proceeded to read Bryan the tea leaves of her future.
“I am going on my fourth term,” McLemore said addressing Bryan. “I can tell you you’ll never make that.”
He said his comment on “blow-ins” was directed at eight or 10 people with whom Bryan was familiar.
“I want to see you four years from now,” McLemore continued to Bryan. “You will be lucky to last two years.”
Bryan replied to McLemore’s comments about following his example by saying, “I will never do what you have done.”
And Barbara Radcliff came to the podium wondering what McLemore meant about Bryan being lucky to last two years.
McLemore dismissed Radcliff as a candidate for commissioner who had lost twice.
When Radcliff noted she had a thriving business, a book store, in the community, McLemore sarcastically nodded and said, “To read books.”
“This is exactly what Ms. Kelley is talking about,” Radcliff said. “The way this board talks to people out in the audience.”
Smiley, his voice growing louder, told Radcliff if she wanted to insult him “I will roll you. I’m tired of being put down. When I roll you over don’t get upset.”
The confrontation reached a climax when Commissioner Ward McDaniel, who noted Health Check received a 10-year tax abatement when they came to Gulf County 16 years ago, moved, and was supported by his fellow commissioners save Bryan, to pull from the board’s informational packet information Bryan had collected from staff on the Americus Ditch project.
McDaniel contended that when the issue was raised at a prior meeting the county attorney had urged commissioners to restrict comments on the $1 million ditch that remains faulty and endangers homes, according to several homeowners.
Commissioners have discussed the issue at two meetings since.
He added that Bryan adding notes to the information could come to haunt the county in any litigation.
Bryan said she was “appalled” by the commissioners’ actions, noting that members of the public have been providing unsolicited and non-reviewed information for the record for months and that the packet of information was for public consumption on the history of a project acknowledged as faulty.
“This ditch is a big problem for this county,” Bryan said. “It is shocking to me the concern of this board is not the ditch, but litigation.”
By a vote of 4-1 the pages were removed from the information packet, an act that has not occurred in at least the last decade.