Last week on Comment Bump: Mickey Lagasse tapped to be Waveland’s new city clerk I wrote the following:
Last time Mr. Lagasse worked in government he was the Hancock County Building official. I remember his departure was precipitated by a newsworthy event but that event was around 12 years ago. Any additional background in comments would be much appreciated.
Since then Lana Noonan of the Hancock County Alliance for Good Government spent two days going through the Seacoast Echo archives searching for the story I vaguely remember but came up empty. It doesn’t mean anything per se because there was lots of news in Hancock County back in 2006 and the Echo many not have covered it so work remains there, especially if Mr. Lagasse’s (termed “Meal Man Mickey” by certain commenters here) appointment as Waveland City Clerk is ratified as expected. That said, Lagasse’s career in Hancock County politics is long and I found something of interest doing Google searches during a short lunch break last week in the Court case Childs v Hancock County Board of Supervisors. The Plaintiff’s Appeals Court brief contains a nice summary and it is there I start:
Sometime during the week of February 7,2005, a team from Rich Mountain Financial Consultants, specialists in high-rise construction financing, met privately with Hancock County Planning Commission (HCPC) director Mickey Lagasse regarding rewriting the zoning ordinance. E-mail from Rich Mountain to Lagasse, included in RE Doc. 3. To have a “successful project with five star quality,” Rich Mountain urged Lagasse, “The higher the better, leaving more open space on the ground. … 40 stories is as a rule the break point in the cost of construction and appearance. 40 stories or 450′ this will allow for high luxury ceilings within the 40 story limit.”
Apparently after obtaining copies of zoning ordinances from several other counties and municipalities, HCPC prepared a draft amendment of the Ordinance to create a C-4 district commercial resort district. Record Exhibit 1. The purpose of the commercial resort districts is to provide for areas for casinos and resort uses including, but not limited to hotels, condominiums, restaurants, daycare facilities, RV parks and other uses. Id. The proposed C-4 ordinance contains minimum lot and set back areas, a 70% maximum impervious surface area and no maximum building height.
On March 27,2005, HCPC published notice of its intention to amend the Hancock County Zoning Ordinance to create a C-4 district and to rezone the subject area C-4. Record Exhibits 3, 10-12. The record includes the text of the proposed amendment to the zoning ordinance, with an unattributed preface that reads:
The proposed adoption and changes of additional Zoning Classification by the [HCPC] and a change to the text in the Hancock County Zoning Ordinance is being reviewed under section 907.01.02.~ Change in condition within the proposed areas, The basis for this change is in accordance with the Hancock County Comprehensive Plan and will be enacted to promote the general welfare of the citizens of Hancock County.
This is nothing unusual on its face. Local governments are approached as a matter of routine about such matters. Let’s continue from the Plaintiff’s brief to get additional background:
The Planning Commission held a public hearing on April 14,2005. RE Doc. 4, The meeting commenced with Mr. Scafide, attorney for the Planning Commission stating the following and then turning over to the public the opportunity to speak.
The proposal is to amend Article 4 zoning ordinance to add C-3 commercial resort district and C-4 commercial resort district, including provisions related to permitted uses, conditional uses, lot requirements, yard requirements, accessory uses, master plans, height restrictions, parking and traffic regulations, building entities and landscaping requirements.
Mr. Lagasse stated that the proposed rezoning will allow existing uses to continue and will add uses such as restaurants and retail locations. Id. at 3. No presentation of the details of the rezoning or the reason for it was made on the record by the Planning Commission. No change in condition was discussed. No updated future land use study or economic study for this area was submitted. No data was presented to establish that any rezoning had occurred in the surrounding area of the subject property. No data, statistics or even testimony were submitted about actual increases in commercialization, road or utility infrastructure, or traffic capacity.
A number of citizens spoke against, and some in favor of the rezoning. A document captioned “Quality of Life?” was identified and later introduced in evidence, apparently after being signed by the author, James Manness, a landowner in the subject area and proponent of rezoning. RE Doc. 3. The document contains photographs of mobile homes on Poinset Street and other unidentified locations with Mr. Manness’ comments on what he states is the poorly kept condition of the residences and lots.
In Hancock Parish, when the fix is in especially, sometimes public officials will play monkey business with official records and that appears to be the case here as the Plaintiffs continue:
There is one important omission in the transcript of the public hearing, which was pointed out at the Circuit Court. The transcript apparently does not contain all of the public comment on the rezoning. Thirteen speakers are in the transcript in the record. RE Doc 4. However, the Commission’s handwritten record lists 14 more speakers, who actually spoke and whose position was identified as “For” or “Against.” Record Exhibit 6. Appellant Lori Gordon’s comments are not contained in the record, nor are those from Tim Killeen, Brice Phillips, Bob Davis, Ina Day, Millie Usher, Ms. Elsie, Faith Seawright, Wayne Clement and Tom Brewer. The speaker sheet tabulated speakers on the rezoning were 14 against and 13 for rezoning in notations “13(F) 14 (A).” Record Exhibit 6. At the conclusion of the hearing HCPC refused to extend the public comment period. RE Doc. 4, p. 32.
It didn’t matter what the public said that night because the result was pre-ordained:
Whereas this Commission finds as follows with respect to the said map amendment:
1. Conditions have changed in and around the area sought to be re-zoned which make an amendment to the Zoning Map necessary and desirable and in the public interest.
The area in question, as any local knows is low lying marshland that maybe sits 10 feet above sea level tops at its highest point and it is not suitable for most kind of commercial development, save a dockside Casino, which is the only kind of Casino allowed back then. The Silver Slipper was already operating down Beach Boulevard at the time. The zoning change was followed by Hurricane Katrina a few months later but the great Hancock County marsh land frenzy was on. After the storm there was a particularly wild public meeting where the developers managed to snag every loon in town to raise hell and scream “all politics is local” whatever the hell that meant. We must not get ahead of ourselves though and we turn to the Mississippi Court of Appeals fill in the rest of the story:
¶ 6. The Board of Supervisors next met on May 2, 2005. At that meeting, the Board of Supervisors adopted the Planning Commission’s recommendations. In so doing, the Board of Supervisors “incorporate[d] by reference the entire record from the Hancock County Planning/Zoning Commission, all findings and public hearings held by the Commission, and all documents reviewed and relied upon by the [Commission].”
¶ 7. A group of Hancock County residents opposed the re-zoning. Earl Childs, Lori Gordon, Amelia Killeen, David Wheeler, and Maria Beard all owned property adjacent to the rezoned and newly classified area.2 On May 18, 2005, the Appellants filed a bill of exceptions and, in effect, appealed the Board of Supervisors’ decision to the Hancock County Circuit Court.
¶ 8. On May 31, 2005, Paradise Properties Group, LLC, filed a motion to intervene. At the same time, Paradise Properties filed an answer to the Appellants’ bill of exceptions. Paradise Properties submitted that the Board of Supervisors’ decision was not arbitrary or capricious and, as such, the circuit court should dismiss the Appellants’ bill of exceptions. On the exact same day, Kudo Developers of Mississippi, LLC, filed a separate motion to intervene. Like Paradise Properties, Kudo Developers asserted that the circuit court should dismiss the Appellants’ bill of exceptions.
¶ 9. The parties submitted briefs and the matter went before the circuit court for review. On January 31, 2006, the circuit court conducted a hearing on the Appellants’ bill of exceptions. However, on March 13, 2006, the circuit court entered an opinion and found that the Appellants “failed to persuade this Court that the order was arbitrary or capricious, i.e., lacking in substantial evidence, discriminatory, illegal, or not supported by substantial evidence.” As such, the circuit court affirmed the decision of the Board of Supervisors.
The appeals Court overturned then Circuit Court Judge Simpson’s ruling in favor of Hancock County:
We find that the Board failed to adequately describe its finding that conditions in the area changed to a degree sufficient to justify rezoning of the property at issue. As such, we reverse the Board’s decision and render judgment for the Appellants.
The reality is the only change of conditions was a developer and a politically connected local wanting to develop low lying swamp lands. After Hurricane Katrina when land elevation became a big development issue and the gaming laws were changed to allow casino gambling onshore, it should have been painfully obvious that this particular pink pig would never fly. Worse, the concept of due diligence was evidently a foreign concept in Hancock Parish because the out of town developers had a long and rich past as garden variety scam artists:
Two brothers involved in the biggest post-Katrina development on the Mississippi Gulf Coast were key figures in an Internet stock scam that federal authorities say bilked investors out of more than $12 million, MSNBC.com has learned.
Additionally, one of the men was barred from the franchising business for life after federal lawyers sued him in a fraud case they said cost investors $6 million. The other brother filed for bankruptcy in 2002, and both have yet to satisfy a federal judgment against them of nearly $10 million.
And while the brothers said they had developed numerous real estate projects in Florida, California, Colorado and even Russia, neither they nor their associates would provide specific names and locations of any of the developments despite repeated requests by MSNBC.com.
Richard S. and Donald R. Kern are officials of the Paradise Properties Group, which has the preliminary blessing of Hancock County officials to build thousands of condominium units, apartments and resort facilities in buildings as high as 40 stories in the southwest corner of the county. And the company has more plans afoot elsewhere in the hurricane-ravaged county.
And of course the number one reason cited locally after a shit house deal is done would be ignorance, which is pitiful:
The “Paradise Bay” project, which was profiled on Fox News earlier this month, is stunning for its scope and size in a county with just two small incorporated cities and a pre-Katrina population of only 43,000 fulltime residents. The $5 billion value that Paradise Properties puts on its Hancock County projects would be more than 10 times the value of all taxable property in the county prior to the hurricane.
“Certainly it concerns me,” Hancock County administrator Tim Kellar said when told of the Kern brothers’ past legal problems. “That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
Turns out everyone then in County government was ignorant of the developers past with the notable exception of the politically connected local businessman that stood to make money selling the land:
Donald Kern said he has worked in construction and real estate since he was in high school. Asked to name a single project, he replied, “Off the top of my head, I can’t remember them right now.”
Other members of the firm, including its chief media representative, also would not name any projects that the men had developed.
“I’d have to check and see what I’m at liberty to give out,” said Angela Kurlander. When pressed for the name of just one project, she said, “This is your focus at MSNBC, how can we make everything as negative as possible?”
Danny Coates, a Hancock County resident and local point man for Paradise Properties Group, said that he had known Richard Kern for many years. But when asked the same question, he said “I really don’t know” any previous projects that Kern had developed.
Attorney Gerald Gex, who works for the county and was assigned by Kellar to discuss the case with MSNBC.com, called the refusal by the Paradise representatives to name past projects “just the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” adding, “That doesn’t sound right.”
Another member of the Paradise team who would not name any projects undertaken by the Kerns is Mike Cure, a well-known local businessman and the Kerns’ partner in the Hancock County developments.
Cure, whose family has been represented by Gex for many years, said he was aware of Richard Kern’s SEC case and was “not at all” concerned that the brothers’ past legal troubles would taint his ventures with them.
“Richard seems to be a forthright guy who looks to have a good relationship with bankers,” he said. Cure added that because he and his family own all of the land involved in their deals with the Kerns, “I’ve got control.”
And of course one naturally wonders how many people put up the 10% nonrefundable deposits:
Chief sales agent for the project, Robin Sherman of JME Coldwell Banker in Pensacola, Fla., said prices, which she expects to increase as construction nears, range from $475,000 to $800,000. Buyers are paying 10 percent non-refundable down payments to enter into contracts, Sherman said.
The project fizzled after the Sups were shot down by the Courts and the public became wise to the scammers that were promoting a pie in the sky, too good to be true real estate development on land that floods when a tropical storm is in the vicinity or even when the east wind blows too hard. Imagine if the Planning Commission had done some basic due diligence on the front end? How much BS could have been saved on the back end after the Hurricane, not to mention Attorney fees spent by the County defending people that were later exposed as fraudsters.
Now Mayor Smith would have Mr. Lagasse serve as municipal clerk for Waveland. There is a 454 page handbook for Mississippi muni clerks. Here is a quote from the section styled “Qualifications”:
Qualifications for City Clerk may vary with the size of the municipality. There are, however, certain skills, knowledge bases and abilities which the Clerk should possess. Because the Clerk serves as auditor and bookkeeper, considerable knowledge of accounting and bookkeeping is vital.
The auditor function of the Clerk is one that cannot be delegated to other employees. Put another way it is a terrible idea for the accounting staff to be their own auditor. While Lagasse has a long history of political appointments, he has none as an accountant or auditor. That may be exactly why he is Mayor Smith’s choice given his history in County government. As I wrote in comments a few days ago my instincts are this will end badly, as we recently saw in Bay St Louis where Mayor Fillingame’s last City Clerk was a marketing major.
I suspect this will become a continuing topic here on Slabbed. Stay Tuned.