January 24, 2021

Group attacks city leaders with now-removed billboard

A new political group is aiming harsh criticism at the leaders of a northeast Mississippi city, but city leaders say the criticism is rooted in a personal dispute that the group’s two heads have with the city.

A Better Columbus, founded by Leslie Sorrell and her husband, Will Sanders, has been sharply critical of the mayor and city council of Columbus, attacking them on social media and on a billboard that was later removed.

The Commercial Dispatch reported the group rented a billboard reading “Mayor and Council. Where’s our money? What are you hiding? Who else is going to jail?” earlier this month, only to see Lamar Outdoor Advertising take the billboard down days later.

Sorrell told the newspaper Friday that the decision to pull the billboard was made at Lamar’s Jackson, Mississippi, office.

“At first, I was told that the problem was that the disclaimer about who paid for the billboard was too small,” she said. “I told them that they had designed the billboard, so then the reason I was given was because they weren’t comfortable with the part that said, ‘Who’s going to jail?'”

Lamar representatives did not respond to the newspaper’s request for comment by press time.

The since-removed billboard’s “jail” language refers to former Columbus Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle, who was indicted in August on charges of embezzling $290,000 in city funds. Rawle is awaiting trial.

Sanders is an accountant and auditor who grew up in Columbus. Sorrell, from Hopkinsville, Kentucky, owned her own political consulting and lobbying firm. They split their time between Belize and Columbus, where Sanders owns a house.

“When we moved into the house in 2014, all of the houses were owner-occupied,” Sorrell said. “Now, every house across the street is vacant and for sale and has been for some time. They’ve deteriorated and have become a place where people go to use drugs.”

The couple said they attempted to work with the city to address two properties near their home, but became disillusioned with what they say is inaccurate recordkeeping and unresponsiveness.

Sanders stood by the tone of the messaging. The two say they believe Mayor Robert Smith and the entire city council should be voted out, and that they’re encouraging challengers to run for office.

“It may be shocking to people, but the problems behind it are even more shocking,” Sanders said. “We’re trying to inform people about what’s going on, and it isn’t pretty.”

A Better Columbus is not required to divulge its members, but Sorrell said the group now has more than 400 members and a budget of $75,000.

The mayor said in a statement that he believes the group was created to air the personal grievances of Sanders and Sorrell, saying they’re trying to buy a particular house for less than it’s worth and “the city has not been cooperative enough to help them in their quest.”

Smith provided a copy of a letter he said Sanders sent to a local real estate agent asking for help in acquiring the property for a reasonable “as-is” price.

“What they are posting on social media is false and is targeted at running down my reputation as well as the majority of the members of the city council,” Smith said.

Sorrell and Sanders say their criticism goes beyond code enforcement, focusing fire on a budget which they say city leaders wrongly characterize as financially sound.

The city’s debt increased from about $9 million in 2010 to $36.4 million by March 2020. The city ran deficits exceeding $800,000 in both 2017 and 2018 and amended its budget in November to show a surplus of $2.8 million in fiscal year 2020.