From Greatness to Grazing: An Analogy of Lumberton's Mayors

What happened to the City of Lumberton? When did the shift take place? When did elected officials become more concerned with their own motives instead of looking out for the best interest of their constituents? The City of Lumberton deserves full representation from the mayor and the board of alderpersons; competent and spirited leadership that’s driven by bold ideas and grounded in good judgment. This is how the American dream is built. As I reflect on the past, I will try to show where the paradigm shift occurred.

THE GARRAWAY ADMINISTRATION

The other week, I starting reading the blog of former mayor, Bobby J. Garraway. By most accounts, he is probably the most admired mayor to ever serve in Lumberton. I did not know he was the one that went out and garnered support and resources for the facility that we now know as Cooper Industries. What happened to mayor's of this caliber? Here's an excerpt from his blog post regarding his quest to bring industry to the City of Lumberton.

In 1973 Bob Daniels, Industrial Representative of Mississippi Power Company of Gulfport, Mississippi contacted me and said that he had shown a site for a large plant in the new Industrial Park that I had built in Lumberton while I was said City’s Mayor. About two weeks later I followed up and he told me that the prospect had eliminated Lumberton as a prospect for its new plant as it would not build its plant on property serviced by a Rural Electric Cooperative since its sales were exclusively to publicly owned power companies. I then went to the Power Company and got a map of their territory. The forty acres immediately North of the area embraced by the Rural Electric Coop was in Mississippi Power Company’s territory. I got the City an option to purchase this land and then notified Mr. Daniels who then contacted the prospect. He then called me and said the company was about to announce it was going to locate near Covington, Louisiana. He said he was talking with their Engineer. I requested he have the Engineer to contact me. The Engineer called me and I told him that I had optioned the land and that the City had a rail siding leading to the property plus sewage and water. I impressed on him that the water line met the requirement of the top 500 corporations in America for underwriting insurance purposes which required a 12 inch line plus we had installed adequate ground storage facilities. Gulfport had built a large industrial park but it only had an 8 inch line which ruled it out as a site. He then said he would come to Lumberton and see if the site was suitable. The Engineer was John Whitely and the Company was Wagner Electric Company out of Newark, New Jersey. Mr. Whitely swore me to secrecy and told me if anyone ever divulged his company’s name that would be the end of the matter. Wagner had gone to a town in Tennessee and it got out they were locating there and they were besieged by hundreds of calls and it let their competition also be privy to their intentions. They then told me that they wanted more land than we had optioned. This additional land was owned by Max Jordan who then worked for Howard Hughes’ Company and he lived in Huntington Beach California. Wagner then told me if I could get an option on this land and a survey and topographical map within the next seven days that they would build a large transformer plant on the land. I got busy and went to Los Angeles and got the option and our City Engineer, Brax Batson. made the survey and topo map and the plant was later constructed and is now Lamar County’s largest employer. The plant facility later expanded and is a 15 million dollar investment and is now operated by Cooper Industries. I consider it a monument to my effort to get industry for Lumberton.
What a feat? The initiative of Mayor Garraway sustained families for many decades and no other mayor, that served in Lumberton, has a comparable legacy.

THE LADNER ADMINISTRATION

Mayor Russel Ladner served many years as the Mayor of Lumberton. He was a quite leader but he lead with dignity and grace. I never heard of any scandals during his administration but during his tenure, the city was ran quietly and efficiently. One of Ladner's greatest accomplishments as Mayor of Lumberton was the construction of the new city hall. The old city hall, now the location of the Lumberton Museum, was the central place of city business. Ladner had a vision for a bigger, better facility as the hub of Lumberton's legislative body and that with great care and fiscal responsibility; the new facility was constructed. Unfortunately, Ladner did not get the opportunity to chair any meetings at the new location. The building was being erected during an election cycle and before the building was completed, he lost his re-election bid to Gregory Cooley.

THE COOLEY ADMINSTRATION

Mayor Greg Cooley was the first African-American elected to serve as mayor of the City of Lumberton. His term was mired with resistance from the board. For the first time in mayoral history, the board was not willing to work with the Mayor of Lumberton. It seems that his term was faced with opposition at every turn. At one point, he was allegedly assaulted by Alderman Ben Winston. During this term, I flippantly referred to the aldermen that served as the Killer B because they seemingly killed every business venture that want to locate in Lumberton and because they all had the letter B in their names (Ben Winston, Barry Waites, and Dorman "Butch" Davis.) In my opinion, the roots of Lumberton began to die because of all the bitterness and hatred that surfaced. Do I think it was related to the race of the mayor? Yes I do. There are those that would argue that it couldn't have been an issue of race because Ben Winston was a key player in a lot of the controversy that surrounded this administration. I am well aware that there are those that think they're part of the solution and not part of the problem. I also know that a white man has no problem calling you son but they never want to call you son-in-law. Meaning, Ben Winston has made it know where his allegiance lies and it is not within his community. During this administration, the citizens of Lumberton started paying for health insurance coverage for the aldermen at the behest of Alderman Ben Winston. Prior to his motion to get tax payer health care coverage, the mayor was the only one getting benefits paid by the taxpayers. Also, it was during this administration when the board overlooked the issues of nepotism and hired Stephanie Mullings as a deputy clerk; despite the fact that her mother was also working in the office at a deputy clerk.

THE DAVIS ADMINISTRATION

Dorman "Butch" Davis won the bid to serve as mayor. This was a difficult time to serve as mayor. If memory serves me correctly, months within his first year as Mayor of Lumberton, Hurricane Katrina hit. It was one of the hardest storms to hit the City of Lumberton since Hurricane Camille. During this time, everyone was dealing with matters that we never had to deal with as a city. There was an extensive loss of power, damage to homes and at one point the Mississippi National Guard had to patrol at night. Although this was a very trying time for the city, a great display of community was shown towards one another. I recall we had water and our gas stove was working so we were able to take baths and cook in the mornings. I also remember the stores being closed, there was a quest to find gas and there was a food and supply site set up at Bass Academy. Many people were able to get non-pershible food items and the memorable blue tarps from this location. I also remember a financial assessment site was set up at First Baptist Church in Purvis. It seemed that every day we were in a different line; signing up for one type of assistance or another. There were FEMA stations set up and eventually, there was a distribution station set up at the Old Movie Star building in Lumberton. There was a brief controversy when members of the community heard of a local church offering to wash the clothing for the "white" workers that came to clear the down trees and restore the power to the City of Lumberton. But instances of that nature were few and far between the kindness neighbors offered to one another. People were forced to come out of their homes, sit on their porches and converse with their neighbors. On act of kindness that has stuck in my mind was when I saw Rev. Perry Holder and men of Tabernacle Baptist Church driving around handing out bags of ice in the community. I recall when I went to city hall after the storm, Davis was there with JoAnn Ladner and members of the police department having a meeting. I don't know what the meeting was regarding but he had given me permission to type a letter on the computer in the police department computer and please don't ask me why I needed to type a letter during this moment but I did. I recall him sitting there at the helm with his straw hat on and they were discussing various strategies. Shortly afterwards, Davis resigned from his post as mayor for health reasons. In more recent moments, Davis invited me to his home to discuss some comments that were made in the blog; in an effort to bring clarity to the matter and offer his perspective of the events.

THE LOTT ADMINSTRATION

Aaron Lott rolled into Lumberton like a tumbleweed. Shortly after moving to Lumberton, he came to the board meetings showing interest in purchasing the Old Movie Star Building and the Lumberton Hospital. When Lott arrived, he as already close with most of the so called big dogs of Lumberton; Paul Ockmond, Jerry Brown and Ben Winston. Soon after Davis announced his resignation, Lott had campaign signs printed and already posted around the City of Lumberton. The time seemed incredulous; well at least to me. Aaron Lott had given the impression that he was related to then Senator Trent Lott. It wasn't an issue he announced but he didn't readily deny the assumption. Lott was at a constant loggerhead with Alderman Quincy Rogers, Alderman Terry Cannaday and Alderwoman at Large Miriam R. Holder, who were trying to protect the best interest of the citizens of Lumberton, while Lott was still focused on getting the Movie Star Building and the Lumberton Hospital. Somehow, through investors, Lott was able to get his hands on the old Movie Star Building at a fraction of the cost. As a matter of fact, the sale of the building didn't cover the fee the city paid to have the roof of the building repaired.

Lott was later involved in a business venture called Mississippi Green Built. While surfing the internet, a picture surfaced of Lott, Winston and Ted Davis. On the photograph, Ted Davis, brother in law of Ben Winston, was listed at Vice President of Mississippi Greenbuilt but during the ribbon cutting ceremonies, Davis was taking the photos and videotaping the opening. I suppose he was the Videographer/Vice-President. Later during Lott's term, there was another push to gain control of the Lumberton Hospital. His failure led him to seek other avenues of trying to win over the citizens of Lumberton. Lott, Ockmond and another fly by night business owner took it upon themselves to start a beautification project for downtown Lumberton. They used stucco and materials from the Greenbuilt facility to erect fencing. Here's an excerpt from the story that was ran in the Hattiesburg American on November 23, 2007.

Tired of the damaged look of downtown Lumberton, area business owners banded together in recent weeks to build a new fence along Main Street, covering up unsightly holes between the buildings. The fence, made of stucco and an assortment of cultured stones, was the project of several area businesses, including Mississippi Green Built, Ockmand Enterprises and OPM Financial Consortium. It lines the east side of Main Street and is khaki colored. "Basically what it is, is the business owners took the situation under their control," said Aaron Lott, manager of Mississippi Greenbuilt
The fencing was supposed to be a gift of appreciation to the City of Lumberton, but after Lott resigned as Mayor of Lumberton, the city was billed for the fence that was erected in downtown Lumberton. On February 25, 2008, Lott resigned, citing the following reasons.
Lumberton Mayor Aaron Lott says he has had enough. And during a special town hall meeting he turned in his resignation, effective tomorrow. Reading a prepared statement Lott said: "The spending habits of the board of aldermen have caused tremendous financial strain on the city of Lumberton." He said a majority of the board spent restricted funds and the city's financial problems will never be fixed unless the board members can overcome their differences and work together. A special election must be held within 45 days to replace Lott. In the meantime Alderwoman Mariam Holder will serve as mayor pro-tem. Some board members are concerned about finding a candidate because they voted last week to cut the salary of the mayor to one dollar a month to save money. But the board has not approved the minutes of that meeting.

Lott also promised to pay the cost associated with a special election because he was concerned that the City of Lumberton was not fiscally prepared to pay for the unexpected expense. True to his character, Lott did not pay to cover the cost of the election but he did give the City of Lumberton a donation to help with the costs.

THE STRAHAN ADMINSTRATION

During a special election, Larry Strahan was elected to serve the remainder of the term that was vacated by Davis and Lott. To say that Strahan's brief tenure as mayor was mired with controversy would be an understatement. Strahan was accused of withholding public documents, putting a wireless router on the computer systems at city hall so he could access the files from his home, employed a private milita group to serve a armed police officers without providing their identities to the board or the public, he wouldn't allow city clerk, Leonette Wynn to perform her job; constantly suspending her with pay, refusing to allow JoAnn Ladner to serve as city clerk after the resignation of Leonnette Wynn, turning over the city's money bag to Stephanie Mullings, violating the ADA (American's with Disabilities Act) by locking the only handicapped accessible entrance to city hall because he wanted everyone to use the front entrance to city hall so he could see them from his porch, being accused of driving under the influence and hitting the median in front of city hall and last but not least, the allegations that he referred to the black alderpersons as "monkeys" in a taped conversation between him and a police officer. The brief term was controversial, to say the least. Despite all his flaws, Strahan was very supportive of the Lumberton Police Department and fought to ensure they were paid for all the hours they worked. During his tenure, if police officers needed to work overtime, they were paid; not given comp time.

THE HOLDER ADMINSTRATION

Mayor Miriam R. Holder was the first woman elected to serve as Mayor of Lumberton. She took over the helm of the city at a very troubling time. Businesses were closing and those elected to serve as aldermen were more interested in fighting her instead of fighting for the City of Lumberton. During the Holder administration, I decided to start the Lumberton Informer. Many say I started the Informer as a platform for Mayor Holder but the truth of the matter is I started the Lumberton Informer because I did not trust Bobby Gibson or Timothy Johnson and I wanted those that didn't attend the meetings to know how they were being represented by those they elected. In my mind, I always felt that Gibson and Johnson sought office to do the will of Ben Winston but I also knew they needed a third person to assist in their efforts. I would have never thought, in a million years, that David Kent Crider would be siding with Gibson and Johnson; especially based on his "Southern heritage." But I guess he was willing to set aside his "family traditions" in an effort to gain an alliance for agenda. This was probably one of the most tulmultous terms ever witnessed by any Lumberton mayor. The shenanigans actually made it to YouTube.

Never had a mayor been disrespected like Miriam R. Holder. As the city was continuing to dwindle, the board was still focused on wrangling in the black female that was serving as Mayor instead of working together to find a way to retain/bring industry to Lumberton. Stephanie Mullings was the city clerk, there was no accountability regarding the finances of the city, the board had terminated the employment of several good officers, including Chief Adrian Fortenberry, hired Dennis Hobson, an officer from Tupelo with a history of domestic violence, to serve as Chief of Police, hired is girlfriend, Cindy Wall (who was also a victim of Dennis Hobson's violence), at the recommendation of Stephanie Mullings, denied the mayor access to records and certain areas of city hall and how could I forget, had the mayor arrested for obstruction of justice. Gibson, Johnson and Crider gave Mullings carte blanche when it came to city hall and they were turning the City of Lumberton into a terror for law abiding citizens. People were being arrested left and right, rogue cops were stopping and frisking people for walking (but somehow, they never managed to catch any of the life long drug dealers), people were taken to jail for speaking up and the books at city hall was coming up short, very short but as the city was hemmoraging from the loss of revenue, there was no signs that the board wanted accountability; something Mayor Miriam R. Holder fought long and hard to get into place. Despite her many obstacles, Mayor Holder was able to see the completion of the CDGB Green Space grant that help with the renovation of the Fifth Avenue Park and the completion of two new green spaces across from the post office and Ward's. Mayor Holder was also able to get the new industrial park certified for economic development. After years and years of seeing the signs, the board finally terminated the employment of Stephanie Mullings. Unfortunately, the city has yet to seek any avenues of recouping the great loss of misappropriated funds. Thankfully, Hobson and most of his rogue officers were terminated but the board has not reached out to the officers that were terminated based on self serving agendas. At this moment, Mullings has filed a lawsuit against the Mayor and Alderpersons of Lumberton for wrongful termination. She claims she was terminated for blowing the whistle on Dennis Hobson. The case has not been placed on any court docket. One would think that enough time has passed to present this case. Mayor Holder did not win her election bid to serve a second term. If and when the lawsuit is presented in court, the City of Lumberton can close this seeminly never ending chapter of Mulling's manipulation and move forward.

THE WINSTON ADMINSTRATION

Despite having a lackluster career as Alderman, Ward 4 and member of the Lamar County Board of Supervisors, District 2, Ben Winston was elected to serve as Lumberton's mayor. Few people voted in the city wide election but Winston is here to serve as mayor for the next four years; unless he resigns. Shortly after taking the oath of office, Winston quickly delegated his duties and responsibilities to others; namely Alderwoman at Large, Cora Rogers. Prior to the election, Winston was involved in yet another controversy. Winston was accused of trying to ban an elderly woman from attending his church, Sweet Beulah Missionary Baptist Church. I think the matter has been squared away but there's a trend in Lumberton where ministers take it upon themselves to ban individuals from their church. I guess at some point, they're going to replace the phrase, "the doors of the church are open" to "the doors of the church are open to certain people." In recent news, Winston has been trying to get a restriction on the new industrial park removed or waived by the board. It seems that the county is not interested in using or maintaining the land. Therefore, they want the restriction waived so the land can be used for planting crops, grazing livestock or worse. I am still looking into this matter and I think there's an underlying reason why Winston want this restriction lifted. I find his proposal strange; especially since he was the main one pushing for the area to be zoned heavy manufacturing for economic development. Hopefully, he's not selling out the city again like he did when he hired a lawyer to keep from paying revenue on FEMA trailers that were being sold from his land. In case you don't remember, let me refresh your memory. Aaron Lott had leased the land from then District 2 Supervisor to sell reclaimed FEMA trailers. The land was not zoned for this purpose but they were selling the trailers anyway. In case you don't remember, I blogged about this matter back in 2010. Here's an excerpt.

I found some interesting facts while on Ebay and Craigslist this morning. While on Craigslist, I found that they have been selling those trailers since April 13, 2010. The starting price for the FEMA trailers is $3,950.(To access this information go to www.craigslist.org, in the search craigslist box type trailers and click on enter. This will bring up a result page that list all the trailers for sale. Scroll down and you will see a tab that list Lumberton.) The contact number is 478-808-3894 Wait, it gets better. When I went onto Ebay, I found a lot more information. (In order to see the trailers on ebay, you must register with the website, and when you conduct your search for trailers, you must click on each photo to find the ones being sold in Lumberton or do a search by the Item Number.) According to Ebay, the company is selling the trailers under the name of Double Yellow Equipment Leasing Company. According to Ebay, the company is credited with selling over $7,000,000 in manufactured homes and travel trailers in the last 45 days from the company's lot in Lumberton, Mississippi. The contact person on Ebay is JoAnn Issacs( a former FEMA employee), and she can be reached at 601-606-5968, or you can e-mail her at jobofiveash@yahoo.com. The starting price for the trailers on Ebay is $3,750. They are listed under item number 18051647906. I had a friend call them and she was told that she could come to the Lumberton location and buy a trailer. All she needed to do was tell them that Matt from Georgia sent her, and they would prefer payment with a cashier's check. I know this has been a touchy subject in our city. I don't know what actions the city has taken to fully resolve this matter, but I know that two of the aldermen have ties with the land owner, so they are going to have to recuse themselves when voting on this matter. So, it is up to Crider, Hale, and Rogers to take a stance on the issues surrounding the sale of the used FEMA trailers. I hope they keep in mind that the City of Lumberton is not getting any revenue from the sale of these trailers. As stated in Matt. 22:21, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's" Our city streets are being damaged by the hauling of these trailers, our traffic is being halted by the hauling of these trailers, and the overall appearance of our city has been tainted by the storage/sale of these used FEMA trailers.
True to form, Lumberton did not receive a cent from these sales. The matter actually made it to court but Judge Stewart advised the board to dismiss the case in order to appease the District Supervisor for District 2. I guess we're having a deja vu moment because that's the same phrase being used by Winston in dealing with the opposition to allow the county to turn the industrial park into a cow pasture. When the smoke clears and by the time the ink dries, the true reason for requesting this waiver will be revealed and hopefully, it won't be to late.

That's a review of Lumberton's top leaders. I think I may do a review of the former alderperson next but it will be a little more difficult to summarize their service to the city. Looking back, I can see where we took the wrong turn but Lumberton still has a fighting chance but the citizen's must be willing to get in the ring and demand better accountability. The board will never seek avenues of finding out what happened to the hundreds of thousands of dollars of missing money if the citizens don't demand they do so or put people in office that will do their jobs. It's time for a change in Lumberton and it's time for you to get involved. Lumberton is family and family is like branches on a tree; we all grow in different directions but our roots remain as one.

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