Two weeks before Election Day, Hinds supervisor pulls board item for $1.5M grant amid vendor concerns

Supervisors also rescind grant approval in public forum after facing criticism for doing it privately
Two weeks before Election Day, Hinds supervisor pulls board item for $1.5M grant amid spending...
Two weeks before Election Day, Hinds supervisor pulls board item for $1.5M grant amid spending concerns
Published: Oct. 19, 2020 at 8:44 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - As Election Day draws closer, a spending plan for a $1.5 million grant intended to help make the election run safely and securely has yet to be approved by the Hinds County Board of Supervisors amid concerns that some vendors could have been handpicked to benefit an elected official.

Supervisor David Archie and Election Commissioner Toni Johnson -- both representing District 2 -- have accused each other of trying to steer part of that money since last week.

Documents obtained by 3 On Your Side show the basis for those allegations Archie made publicly on WMPR 90.1 Wednesday morning: nearly $200,000 in purchase requests by Johnson days before supervisors initially approved spending that money.

Johnson maintains she followed directions from the county administrator, Jennifer Riley Collins, and there was nothing illegal in her actions.

“We were instructed through the county administrator that the ball was rolling in on that date. To my understanding, we were fully anticipating funds coming in. That didn’t happen because of the actions of the board of supervisors, particularly David Archie," Johnson said.

An email from Collins provided by Johnson serves as proof of that instruction.

“We will need to make some very time sensitive purchases as the election is a month away,” Collins wrote. “You will receive purchase requisitions beginning tomorrow that will be coded CTCL Grant. These are top priority. Please do not delay issuing POs.”

County governments utilize purchase requisitions as a paper trail that helps establish accountability before purchase orders are issued, requiring approval by the budget department and county administrator beforehand.

Records provided to 3 On Your Side show that email was sent to Supervisor Robert Graham on September 30.

Johnson believes those requisitions are being weaponized against her because she believes the board wants to control all of that grant spending.

“It’s absolutely absurd. And I think it’s a reflection of the immaturity and the lack of knowledge for county government that we have with the Board of Supervisors,” Johnson said.

That lack of knowledge was put on display last week after three supervisors -- Graham, Credell Calhoun and Archie -- privately took back their votes the day after they publicly approved a spending list for the grant.

Graham told 3 On Your Side Wednesday that after they sent emails to Collins notifying her of their intent to rescind their votes, Board Attorney Tony Gaylor told them those actions would not count because they would have to be done in an open meeting, according to state law.

During Monday’s meeting, Graham told those in attendance that those three supervisors did not meet privately and emails between supervisors didn’t count as “meeting," informally or otherwise.

“They were contacted individually. And anytime you have open records, a meeting like that, you can’t have any more than two supervisors at one particular point in time [meeting], but we can email each other all day," Graham said Monday.

Those votes were officially rescinded in Monday morning’s supervisors meeting, and shortly afterward, Graham pulled an item which would consider new recommendations by the organization behind that grant, citing spending concerns and proper vetting of vendors.

“We want to make sure number one, that the people that were on the list were vendors of the county, we wanted to make sure that they had proper insurance, we want to make sure they have property, proper liability insurance, and that they were vetted properly.”

Part of the confusion, Graham said, came from a spending list introduced presumably from election commissioners before last Monday’s meeting, but Johnson said that’s not true.

She and other commissioners maintain that supervisors came back with that amended spending list after taking a 45-minute recess that day, and recognized five vendors from previous conversations she had with Archie and other county employees.

Those frustrations led Johnson to ask the Center for Technology and Civic Life, the organization in charge of the grant, to rescind the full amount of the grant last week.

Emails provided to 3 On Your Side show CTCL changed the terms of the agreement, saying now that the organization itself has to sign off on any reallocation of funds between budget items or another public purpose outlined in the agreement, and emailed Graham last Thursday to notify him of the changes.

When asked about those new terms Monday -- which appeared to be reflected in the very agenda item he pulled from consideration -- Graham seemed to have no knowledge of the email, telling 3 On Your Side he hadn’t checked his inbox in more than four days.

“I was off Thursday and Friday, out of town. But whatever you received, we’ll be happy to take a look at it," Graham said. “The only thing that we want to make sure is that the grant is administered in the proper way. And that’s what we’re going to make sure that we do,” Graham said.

Johnson said she doesn’t think the grant will be approved in time to be able to help with election safety and security, considering it’s just fifteen days away.

“I’m not sure where Hinds County goes from this point because this item was not brought before the board on this agenda. And I’m not sure what that means between now and November 3 for us," Johnson said.

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