On February 1, 2019 the Mississippi Ethics Commission cited the Bay St Louis City Council for violating the Mississippi Open Meeting law in the matter styled Noonan v Mayor and Councilmen of the City of Bay St Louis. In what is a recurring theme with a different cast of characters, the City conducted an improper executive session which resulted in the removal of Ellis Anderson from the Bay St Louis Historical Preservation Commission.
The opinion is not yet on the Ethics Commission website but I have seen portions of it. Essentially the Council and Mayor in the City of Bay St Louis are on the receiving end of an ethics compliant that mostly resulted from not receiving good legal advice from Board attorney Heather Ladner Smith, who failed to caution the Mayor and Council not to act on an item which was not contained on the official meeting agenda. Smith, the politically connected daughter of Hancock County Tax Collector Jimmie Ladner took over as City Attorney when Trent Favre was appointed County Court Judge.
According to Mrs. Noonan, Ms. Smith of the Butler Snow law firm is providing legal services to the City without a formal written contract, a practice the previous administration was advised to discontinue by the Office of the State Auditor.
Earlier this month we did a series of posts on K-12 education, the last one disclosing a meeting Slabbed had with Bay-Waveland School Board Trustee Mike Bell. The meeting, which included local parent volunteer Cami Cornfoot and Lana Noonan, President of the Hancock County Alliance for Good GovernmentTM dealt with the hiring of a new Superintendent of Education and the optics involving the fact the new Superintendent’s Brother was the existing business manager of the school district.
We covered a lot of ground over the ensuing two plus hours of discussing the state of the school district. I reserved judgment as I was in it for the information and I wanted to hear the School Board’s side of things. Lana on the other hand was pretty staunch in holding her position that the resulting nepotism from the hire of Vikki Landry looked awful. Simply put, Lana held Trustee Bell’s feet to the fire as they would eventually nicely agree to disagree on the subject.
To kick start things we need to re-visit Cassandra Favre’s January 27, 2017 story, BWSD may need 2 assistant superintendents, which left her readers (myself included) with the distinct impression the School District’s Central office expanded by one Assistant Superintendent solely to ameliorate the problems created by hiring the sister of the business manager as the Superintendent. Trustee Bell took issue with that characterization saying the addition of the second Assistant Superintendent was a discreet event that was not done to solve the nepotism problem involving Landry but rather involved a more sweeping reorganization of the business office in a move that cut the amount of local funds spent on Administration.
First what I found strange was both the before and after job description matrices we were presented showed the business manager answering organizationally to one of the Assistant Superintendents, a setup I had never seen in my 20 plus years auditing and consulting with Mississippi K-12s. Every other school district that I have first hand knowledge had the School Business manager answering directly to the Superintendent which makes sense given the job responsibilities handled by the School Business Office. The “before reorganization chart” was thus strange for lack of a better term because the arrangement would have had the Business Manager answering to his sister when she was Assistant Superintendent. Turns out that was not the case but before I get to that let’s visit with Kate Royals at Mississippi Today:
A bill removing a provision in the law allowing school districts to hire relatives of the district’s superintendents and principals passed the Senate on Wednesday.
State law defines a relative as a spouse, child, sibling or parent. The bill would, however, put in place a process for spouses of superintendents to be hired.
On June 5, 2015 the Mississippi Ethics Commission cited the City of Bay St Louis for failure to comply with the Mississippi Public Record law set forth in authority section 25-61-1 et seq of the Mississippi Code (1972).
The City’s response to the Ethics complaint, lodged by Ron Thorpe of the Hancock County Alliance for Good Government claimed the City’s response to the Thorpe PRR was “proper complete and adequate”. However, the Mississippi Public Records statute is very clear that public records requests must be be produced seven days after receipt of the request for production or within fourteen days provided certain notification protocols are utilized. Bay St Louis City Clerk Katherine Smith failed to produce the records within the 14 day time frame, belatedly producing the requested records after Mr. Thorpe was compelled to file an ethics complaint on the matter.
Several members of the public have complained to Slabbed New Media regarding the City of Bay St Louis openly flouting compliance with the Mississippi Public records law as well as in public comments to the City Council. These compliance problems coincide with the exposure of the financial crisis that gripped the City in 2014, when it was forced to refinance its Water and Sewer Bonds or face default. Bay St Louis Mayor Les Fillingame had previously steadfastly maintained the City was solvent despite the imminent default, which was averted with the refinancing of the bonds at a cost to the taxpayers of over $150,000.
Finally, sources familiar with the operations of the State Auditor’s office indicate to Slabbed New Media that an investigation has been opened into certain of the City’s financial practices, including the issuance of $500,000 of debt without any apparent statutory authority that was used to pay past due bills owed to the Hancock County Utility Authority dating to the 2013 fiscal year.
Those wishing to see the final order should click below to obtain the two page pdf.
On July 10, 2015 the Mississippi Ethics Commission cited the Bay-Waveland School Board for improperly entering executive session to discuss the award of a professional service contract for architectural services on February 19, 2015. At that February meeting the School Board was advised it OK to discuss the contract award by Board Attorney Ronnie Artigues, who recently completed his 20th year providing legal services to the School District. The Ethics Commission found the discussion of a RFPs for a professional services contract did not meet any of the clear-cut criteria set forth in authority section 25-41-7(4) of the Mississippi Code.
Worth noting is the school district, in response to the ethics compliant filed by Lana Noonan of the Hancock County Alliance for Good Government, did not actually claim to meet any of the exceptions set forth in the Mississippi Code, the compliance requirements of which Mississippi School Board members receive extensive training. Unfortunately the conduct of the public’s business in secret by the School Board also fits a troubling pattern of secrecy involving conduct of the taxpayer’s business with politically connected citizens dating back to the purchase of the Bay Tech Building by the school district for use as the Central Office.
One of the School Board members that voted to enter the improper executive session, Board President Sherry Ponder, is a long time member of the school board that also holds an education doctorate. She faces at least two declared opponents this fall in the upcoming school board election in the City of Waveland including former Waveland City Councilman Mark Kidd. Another school board member, Maurice Singleton, is running for County Supervisor in District Four. Both have employment connections to the local newspaper of record, the Seacoast Echo.
More recently, the School Board has voted to explore giving the cash strapped City of Bay St Louis fifty thousand dollars for use on a municipal sidewalk project off school property. According to Hancock County Alliance for Good Government President Lana Noonan, the request for the Attorney General’s opinion submitted by Board Attorney Artigues neglected to mention the district’s funding of the project would involve municipal rights of way that did not belong to the School District, an area of the law that is well settled based upon previous Attorney General opinions finding that Mississippi school districts have no statutory authority to fund a municipal capital project.
Perhaps because Mr. Cumbest has some transparency issues of his own involving the Hospital system. The Mississippi Ethics Commission has issued four opinions directly addressing the issue of an elected official’s spouse working in a community hospital since 2008. Three of the four opinions directly address the issue of a Supervisor’s wife working at a community hospital. Here is one:
It is a bit more complex than that however as this opinion from March 2012 demonstrates but the end result is ultimately the same. To the extent the facts in the 2012 opinion mirror Supervisor Cumbest’s fact pattern one wonders how it was missed by both the County and Hospital’s legal departments.
Before I get started with some links how about a nice picture from yesterday’s retiree protest at Ocean Springs Hospital:
It appears the lawyers representing the pension plan, finding no joy on their manufactured recusal motion here on the coast expects the State Supreme Court to stop next weeks hearings on the retiree suits:
They are doing this to avoid having to produce documents that would help everyone get to the bottom of things. You wonder what kind of skeletons are buried in those docs as I am reminded of something I wrote last month:
By their actions SRHS has demonstrated a preference for keeping a law firm with major conflict questions involved in the pension litigation and using that firm’s support of Judge Harris’ opponent in last year’s election as a lever to force Harris off the case. The heart of the Harris recusal motion is predicated on that fact. Remove Dogan & Wilkerson from the equation and the Harris recusal motion they filed goes up in smoke. Simply put, the powers running SRHS must fear Judge Neil Harris more than they do their own legal conflicts. The implications of that fact are stunning and foretell a tale of major muck still being hidden.
Once those documents are produced, my prediction is the SRHS pension plan’s law firm, Dogan and Wilkinson will not be long remaining on the case.
So now we have Jackson County spending big money on the Laporte CPA firm while SRHS spends big money on their own actuary. The price of getting religion at SRHS sure is steep folks.
In other news the fallout from Supervisor William Martin’s indictment and suicide continues. I have been told by sources in Jackson that the Martin indictment is related to the MDOC corruption probe. The timing of former MDOC Commissioner Chris Epps guilty plea and the Martin indictment are not coincidental in my opinion.
The Bay-Waveland School Board hit a home run again today in their efforts to operate under the same clandestine scenario that has become business as usual for them. At a special called meeting to interview potential architects for future projects, they chose to do so in Executive Session.
Now, currently, there is no provision in the Open Meetings Law in Miss. for discussing in Executive Session those professionals who will do contract work for a public entity, only the entity’s own personnel. In a effort to keep things clean, I reminded them of this, but Board Attorney Artigues, stated that this was a” special situation.” Really, after reading the Open Meetings Law, I could find no “special situations” that could be subjectively declared by a public Board or their attorney that would give permission to conduct the kind of business they did today. Continue reading “Public Education: Why Johnny can’t read and a severe lack of transparency at BWSD dominates the local grapevine”