A Biloxi candidates forum Saturday brought out vows to sue and audit the city, as well eyebrow-raising comments on racial diversity.
Mayoral and Ward 2 candidates squared off at a forum at DeMiller Hall in East Biloxi that was hosted by the Biloxi NAACP and the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Ward 2 incumbent Felix Gines and challenger Charlie Clay, both Democrats, spoke first. Republican challenger Ronald Weeks was not in attendance. Ward 1 Democratic incumbent George Lawrence and Republican challenger William Kai Landry did not attend, despite being scheduled to appear.
The North Contract
Clay spoke out against the city’s multimillion-dollar infrastructure contract with Oscar Renda Contracting.
According to Sun Herald reports, the original timeline for the project had completion in August 2017. But 35 change orders since work began in 2014 added 320 days to the contract, extending completion to June 2018.
The work has streets torn up from Biloxi Bay west to beyond Interstate 110. It kicks up clouds of dust. The problem has been so widespread that residents requested the city have the state Department of Environmental Quality look into air-quality concerns.
The cost of the contract also has grown, from $118 million to $122 million.
We here in Ward 2 can barely breathe, survive under the tyranny of the current management of the city of Biloxi.
“This is Oscar Renda’s house,” Clay said in his opening remarks, showing the audience a photo of contractor Oscar Renda’s Texas mansion. “We here in Ward 2 can barely breathe, survive, under the tyranny of the current management of the city of Biloxi.”
“I have sued the city and Oscar Renda and I will sue the city again,” he said.
Later, Democratic mayoral candidate Sugar Stallings said if elected, she would call for an audit of the Oscar Renda contract.
Incumbent Felix Gines responded by noting under his term, the city has spent more on infrastructure in Ward 2 than any other ward.
“When I started my term, the ward was blighted and forgotten,” he said. “I brought a lot of light.
“We’ve seen over $385 million in infrastructure. The ward is being paid more attention than ever before.”
Asked about his top two issues of concern, Gines said he planned to bring a grocery store to give healthy food options to what he called a “food desert,” a term used to describe low-income inner city or rural areas that have limited access to affordable, healthful foods.
Citing the March 7 train collision with a charter bus that took four lives and injured dozens more, Gines proposed having a safety plan that deals with all railroad crossings in Ward 2.
The candidates disagreed on whether school board members should be appointed or elected. Clay said he believed board members should be elected; Gines said he favors appointments.
The mayoral candidates were in agreement on some topics, with some notable exceptions. All three said they supported early voting. Infrastructure was a top issue for all.
Republican candidate Jess Kennedy raised the eyebrows of many in the the majority black audience when, asked about the diversity of the community, said he’s always loved black people.
“Is that so?” an audience member responded.
Kennedy later told the moderator he felt he “was being boxed in” when asked about his thoughts on the state flag.
Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich and Stallings, for their part, said they believed it’s time to retire the state flag.
Stallings took the opportunity to bring up the city’s decision to call Martin Luther King Jr. Day “Great Americans Day” in a city tweet that went viral.
“There was no one there to say this is not going to work out well,” she said. “We want people to feel good about themselves, not the other way around.”
Gilich said the city has made specific efforts to increase diversity in the police department, noting an increase in police department hires of minorities from 12 to 17 percent since he has been in office.
For more information on when and where to vote, check out the city of Biloxi website.