$1.5M grant for Hinds Co. elections in limbo after elected officials fail to agree on spending issues

Supervisors who voted to approve grant took back their votes privately in violation of state law
Published: Oct. 14, 2020 at 8:40 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A fight over who controls the purse strings could cause Hinds County to lose more than $1.5 million intended to make next month’s election safer.

Hinds County Supervisor David Archie claims the buck stops with him and the rest of the board.

“Hinds County Board of Supervisors are totally responsible for the money that is going to be dispersed. We have to ask questions. We have to have balance and checks in terms of what took place," Archie said in a radio interview on WMPR 90.1 Wednesday morning. "Toni Johnson wanted to get her entire hand on all of this money and not report to the Hinds County Board of Supervisors. And we just not was going to let that happen.”

Johnson, who serves as election commissioner for District 2, tells 3 On Your Side that’s not true and claims the nonprofit agency providing the grant told her only election officials can administer those funds.

“I do understand that the county accepts the grant. But the supervisors really have no role in this process, except for making sure that contracts and bids are legal, and that the law is being followed," Johnson said. "It is not David Archie’s responsibility to go line by line and try to police or control what we’re buying for this election.”

Johnson said that supervisors don’t scrutinize other county departments like Archie was trying to do here.

“I’ll use an example: the sheriff’s department and other departments that have grants. Do you see this kind of involvement from David Archie, other supervisors while they’re trying to manage and run their grants for their departments?" Johnson said. "I don’t think so. I think the question is why is he so hands on involved in this $1.5 million election grant for safe elections?”

Johnson submitted a proposed spending list -- approved by the county’s purchasing department -- to supervisors five days before a special-called meeting to approve the grant.

Supervisors took a recess during that Monday meeting and, Johnson claims, they came back with an all-new spending list the election commission had never seen.

On it, Johnson said, were five new items tied to Archie - totaling more than $150,000.

“These are the vendors that Supervisor Archie handpicked and tried to force me to place on this document the previous week," Johnson said. “He took the language of the grant, after he proposed things that were still at random and went back and tried to to basically make those proposals fit in. They still didn’t.”

Johnson cited examples of a tennis court and a company -- Hardison Enterprises -- that wanted nearly $70,000 to provide mats at each precinct coated with a disinfectant to “remove the Coronavirus from voters' shoes," which was deemed by members of the election commission as a safety hazard.

“There is a line on here, put in by David Archie that says event marketing for $49,860. I personally saw a document in our meeting last week that consisted of a block party and that was the event, and included food as well for 300 to 500 people,” Johnson said.

Archie claimed during the radio interview that Johnson tried to offer one company a “blank check” for $300,000, pointing to the line item for Edge of Infinity Enterprises LLC on Johnson’s original document.

Archie expressed a desire to instead provide that money to minority-owned media companies like the Jackson Advocate, the Mississippi Link and WMPR 90.1.

Proposed advertising buys from Edge of Infinity provided by Johnson show Jackson Advocate and WMPR on that list as vendors that would be included, refuting Archie’s claim.

The District 2 election commissioner also took issue with Archie’s “blank check” comment, saying that never happened.

“Absolutely not. My ethics, my principles, I stand on those,” Johnson said. “I think my supporters and the voters and people of Hinds County trust that I know what I’m doing, and that we’re running a fair and safe elections.”

That item for advertising buys -- and the $300k amount -- remained on the newly-introduced spending list.

Three supervisors -- Archie, Robert Graham and Credell Calhoun -- voted in favor of that revised list that Johnson said was created that day.

The next day, those same supervisors rescinded their votes in private without telling the public or doing so in a public meeting as required by state law.

“What we did is rescinded everything. What [does] that say?" Archie said in the radio interview. "Look, don’t play with me.”

Graham told 3 On Your Side the board attorney later told them their private actions weren’t valid.

Johnson said it’s unlikely the county will even get the money now.

“We had a respective agreement, working together as a team moving forward. The only person that was not in agreement, for whatever reason, and again, I’ll say I cannot contribute to his lack of understanding of his job was David Archie," Johnson said. "We understand our role as the election officials. Apparently he doesn’t understand his as supervisor.”

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