Supervisors table matter about Diaz

Published 8:00 pm Monday, November 19, 2018

There were no fireworks, but there was a fire alarm that delayed Monday’s Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting a few minutes in the Warren County Courthouse.

Once the meeting was called to order, attorney David Sessums, representing the Warren County Port Commission, came before the board “asking, pleading and begging this board to please fund” the addendum and extension of the contract of economic development director Pablo Diaz.

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“We know this would make Mr. Diaz happy,” Sessums said. “We don’t want him looking somewhere. We are earnestly requesting you approve this pay raise and to spread it on your minutes. That is our request today.”

Mississippi law does not require the county’s board of supervisors to approve Diaz’s contract. Sessums was there simply to ask the supervisors to include the port commission’s action in its minutes.

The Port Commission, which has the right to “employ personnel as it deems necessary and to provide for the wages of the port director and all other employees” in section 59-7-207 of the Mississippi code, voted last week to extend the contract of Diaz to 2024, which included a 7.38 percent raise increase of his yearly salary from $190,000 to $204,022. His contract was set to expire in 2020. The four-year extension would take place March 31, 2020.

Supervisor John Arnold made the motion to table the matter that was seconded by Supervisor Charles Selmon.

Initially, Arnold wanted the matter to be brought up in a January working session, but it was later decided all parties involved would meet during the supervisors next working session Dec. 10.

Getting on the same page

Arnold explained that he wants “to sit at a table and discuss this” with the Economic Development Foundation, the Port Commission and Board of Supervisors.

“I’m pleased with what Mr. Diaz does,” Arnold said. “I think he’s done a good job. But there’s going to be other industry that is going to be coming. We need to be on board together instead of divided to move forward to attract those industries. I would like to see more discussion so that we can sit together with the business community and move this county forward down the road.”

Arnold said there might be some “misunderstanding and we need to work this out to move forward.

“We need to be on board with the city; on board with the community, our constituents, but surely us five sitting here need to move forward united,” Arnold said, referring to the supervisors.

Board president Richard George said the matter should be taken care of in a timely manner.

“We need to set a timetable so that all parties involved would have some expectation of conclusion,” George said. “I think that’s only fair and business-like effort to address this matter.”

Arnold said the contract of Diaz doesn’t expire until March 2020.

“That’s well over a year,” Arnold said. “We’ve got time on this.”

However, Port Commission Chairwoman Margaret Gilmer said time is of the essence. Diaz’s contract expires in just over a year — March 2020 — and the process of finding a new port commission director and economic development head for Warren County would take well more than a year. It took more than a year to hire a consulting firm and to get Diaz hired and on board, Gilmer said.

Supervisor Charles Selmon said the Dec. 10 meeting is one “that needed to be held several months ago to bring all parties and interests to the same table.”

Selmon said “they have not been on the same page and this is why we’re having this discussion now.”

Port commission met with supervisors

While some supervisors say they were caught off guard by the port commission’s approval of a new contract with Diaz, prior to voting on the pay raise and contract extension, members of the port commission met with four of the five supervisors to discuss Diaz’s contract compensation and extension. In fact, Gilmer said, two meetings were held with supervisors, the final of which they presented revisions to Diaz’s contract pay scale and contract length, based on input from the supervisors.

Gilmer said she and port commissioner Don Brown met with supervisors Richard George, John Carlisle and county administrator John Smith Oct. 3.

According to Gilmer, Brown indicated during the meeting the commission was seeking a seven-year contract extension for Diaz, while George stated “four years would be reasonable and that would get support.”

Brown and Gilmer also met with supervisors Charles Selmon and William Banks that same day. According to notes Gilmer took at that meeting, Selmon said he had no problem with Pablo, the extension and consideration for compensation. He also talked about the importance of communication, giving all supervisors and update and not just the Board President, Gilmer’s notes read.

Banks seemed open to discussion of extending the contact, however, he was concerned over the term limit, Gilmer wrote in her notes about that meeting.

All of those concerns were addressed in the contract, and a revised contract was presented to the supervisors.

Brown and Gilmer had a 1 p.m. meeting that same day scheduled with Arnold, but Arnold cancelled and did not reschedule.

“Although I had hoped the port commission’s action regarding personnel matters would have been handled more efficiently, I’m pleased that we have scheduled a broad and detailed meeting with the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 10, so that everyone understands the issues,” Gilmer said in a statement following Monday’s meeting. “As Richard George said, this community has an expectation of treating something as crucial as economic development with a sense of urgency. Although Pablo’s initial contract doesn’t expire until March 2020, with the success he’s demonstrated here already, we stand a real risk of him being heavily recruited by economic developers across the region. We need to be unified behind one of the best job creators we’ve seen in Warren County in years.”

In addition, Gilmer said, “The Port Commission’s attorneys have confirmed that there is no precedent where a raise for any former director or staff member of the Port Commission had to be brought to the supervisors for approval. It is important to clarify that the Commission is trying to make sure clear communication is part of our processes and that is the only reason we met with the supervisors once, made changes and met a second time, and then approved at our meeting what they expressed to us they could support. We are just trying to maintain good communication and we would like their support in extending Diaz’s contract. Why would they not want to extend his contract, that I do not understand.”

During Monday’s meeting, Sessums pointed out that Diaz has “done a lot in a short amount of time.

“He’s done more in 15 months than his predecessors had done in 15 years,” Sessums said. “Simply stated, the port commission doesn’t want to lose him. And I don’t think Warren County wants to lose him.

“In a short period of time, Mr. Diaz has brought an estimated annual payroll of $25,660,250. That is extraordinary,” Sessums said.

The supervisors will hold the work session Dec. 10 at 8:30 a.m.