Local leaders question bill to change how MDAH board members are appointed

Mississippi State Capitol
Mississippi State Capitol(WLBT)
Updated: Mar. 6, 2021 at 2:46 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

That’s the stance many state and local leaders, and history buffs alike, are taking in response to the Senate’s passage of S.B. 2727.

The bill mandates that new members of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History Board of Trustees be appointed by the governor or lieutenant governor.

Right now, members are appointed by fellow trustees, making the board the only self-perpetuating board in the state.

The MDAH board also is the only state board that does not have members appointed by the governor.

Sen. Mike Thompson, who authored 2727, said requiring appointments to be made by the state’s top two elected officials would provide the board with an additional level of accountability.

“It’s not a good idea to have a self-perpetuating board,” he said. “You need to have an elected official somewhere who has some accountability.”

Opponents, though, say the Thompson’s bill would unnecessarily politicize a relatively apolitical body, and therefore politicize the state’s efforts to preserve, promote and interpret history.

“It doesn’t seem like a good idea,” said District 26 Sen. John Horhn.

Mississippi state Sen. John Horhn is shaken up but thankful for his life after he was robbed at...
Mississippi state Sen. John Horhn is shaken up but thankful for his life after he was robbed at gunpoint.

The measure passed the Senate on a 34-14 vote. Another 3 senators, including Horhn, were absent or not voting, while one senator, David Blount, voted present. Blount’s wife, Katie, is the executive director of MDAH.

In the House, the measure has passed out of the Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee but not before it was amended to include a reverse repealer clause.

That clause would require the bill to automatically go to a conference committee if it passes the House.

Horhn, along with former MDAH Board President Kane Ditto, questioned why the appointment process needed to be changed more than a century after the archives board was put in place.

“It’s really been a very satisfactory arrangement over 100 years,” Ditto said. “We have one of the finest departments of archives and history in the country. That’s the main testimony to its success.”

Ditto points to the fact that Two Mississippi Museums were built under the tutelage of the board of trustees, which helped raise $20 million toward the museums’ construction.

“What political board raises that kind of money?” he asked. “They don’t do it.”

Meanwhile, Ditto said that the board already has political oversight, with members having to be confirmed by the state Senate.

“The board nominates members and submits it to the Senate. Then the Senate approves or rejects it,” he said.

Ditto served on the board for about 14 years, including 10 years as president.

Members are appointed for six-year terms.

“Naturally, we want someone who is very interested in historic preservation, the history of the state, and the subject matters that the department deals with,” he said. “That’s the most important thing.”

Ditto said the board also strives to be as diverse as possible.

“You look for geographical diversity, racial diversity … we want some women on the board,” he said. “We want a cross-section of the state.”

The board includes nine members. Currently, one member each is from Jackson, Columbus, Ridgeland, New Albany, Hattiesburg, Ocean Springs, Starkville, Cleveland, and Natchez.

Its roster includes a Reuben Anderson, an attorney and first African-American supreme court justices in Mississippi, as well as Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State University.

“I think it’s a very apolitical board. It has Republicans, Democrats, independents,” Ditto said. “Its decisions don’t revolve around politics, but what’s best for the state.”

Ditto said that requiring members to be political appointments would make it much more uncomfortable for members to serve.

“There is a lot of pressure from time to time on historic preservation issues to gives owners exactly what they want, even though it’s not consistent with good preservation standards or even the laws of the state,” he said.

Trustees are responsible for department operations and the department itself. Among duties, it oversees numerous historical sites, including the Old Capitol Museum, the Eudora Welty House, Jefferson College, the Mississippi History Museum, and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum among others.

It also is responsible for designating state landmarks and determining what modifications can be made to those landmarks.

Ditto said the board, because of its apolitical nature, has actually shielded politicians from the controversial decisions it had to make.

One controversial decision was to give the state permission to demolish the Sun-N-Sand Motor Hotel. More than 2,600 people signed a petition to save the downtown Jackson facility.

The hotel opened in 1960 and was known as a lodging place for out-of-town legislators.
The hotel opened in 1960 and was known as a lodging place for out-of-town legislators.(WLBT)

Trustees granted the facility landmark status but voted to give the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration the ultimate authority to tear it down.

That decision has been criticized by the Mississippi Heritage Trust as well as other historians and developers who would have liked to see the building saved and repurposed.

Thompson, though, disagrees with arguments that his bill would make MDAH more political.

He points to one of the nominations the current board recently presented to the Senate.

“He drafted Mississippi’s medical marijuana law … He was appointed state bond attorney by Governors Phil Bryant and Haley Barbour … He handled Senator Roger Wicker’s legislative agenda as his first legislative director and appropriations committee staff member...”

Thompson wasn’t commenting on whether that person should or shouldn’t serve, but that it was “disingenuous to pretend that the current slate of board of trustees … is above the political fray.”

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