Podcast: Kelly Hardwick discusses state employee pay raises
Mississippi State Personnel Board Director Kelly Hardwick talks with Mississippi Today about the state government workforce, how workers are paid and whether a pay raise is in order.
Mississippi State Personnel Board Director Kelly Hardwick talks with Mississippi Today about the state government workforce, how workers are paid and whether a pay raise is in order.
The Mississippi Supreme Court did not testify during the one day of public hearings held recently by the influential Legislative Budget Committee, but that does not mean the justices were not discussed.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Randolph’s interpretation of a law enacted in 2012 that he says grants him the authority to give the state’s judiciary a pay raise without legislative approval was an undercurrent of the meeting of legislative leaders.
Actually, for Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, it was more than an undercurrent.
“I just think it is appropriate for the Legislature to do the appropriations,” Hosemann said. “That is what people hired them (legislators) to do. I don’t think there should be an exception to that.”
Hosemann, of course, was referring to the classic, old school breakdown of the responsibilities of the three branches of government: the legislative branch makes the laws and appropriates funds, the executive branch carries out those laws, and the judiciary interprets the laws.
Randolph would argue lawmakers in the 2012 legislation relinquished to him the authority to appropriate money for the judicial pay raises.
Starting after 2019, the 2012 law called for the Supreme Court justices and other judges to receive an automatic pay raise if funds are available, based on a determination of “an adequate level of compensation” as determined by the state Personnel Board. That board regularly conducts studies to determine the salary levels for state employees based on various factors, such as pay for similar positions in the private sector and in neighboring states. Until the 2012 law, the Personnel Board had not been involved in the issue of providing pay raises for the judiciary. That had been left up to the Legislature as it continues to be for other state elected officials.
The 2012 law increased the fees on various court filings — such as the fee to file a civil lawsuit or on the levies in criminal proceedings — to help pay for the salary increase. Some argued at the time the increase on the court filings was equivalent to a tax increase for those who use the courts. But then-Chief Justice William Waller Jr., who advocated for the 2012 legislation, said judges at the time desperately needed a pay increase and he was trying to be responsible by providing a method to pay for it.
What was not clear at the time, at least to many legislators, is that the law would be used by the chief justice to bypass the Legislature to provide a pay raise for himself and other members of the judiciary.
In the 2020 session, House Appropriations Chair John Read, R-Gautier, authored legislation that would have provided a judicial pay raise but would have removed the 2012 language that allowed the judges to set their own salary based on the Personnel Board report. The legislation passed the House, but died in the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg.
In September 2020, less than six months after the 2020 legislation died, Randolph contacted the Personnel Board inquiring about its salary recommendation report for the judiciary. That recommendation was for about a cumulative $2 million increase for state judges starting in January 2021 — a pay increase greater than what was proposed in the 2020 House bill. Randolph enacted the pay raise based on that report.
During last week’s Legislative Budget Committee meeting, House Pro Tem Jason White, R-West, asked questions about one of the guidelines the legislative leaders adopted for developing a budget – a requirement that any across-the-board pay raise for an agency had to be approved by the Legislature.
“We got in a position, one particular agency where raises went into effect and we were kind of in a take it or leave it scenario,” White said.
“You mean the Supreme Court?” asked Hosemann.
“Yes sir,” White replied.
Referring to the 2012 law, Hopson said, “I think the statute probably trumps what we do…When we get back into session there needs to be something that confirms this (guideline.) We probably need to adjust the statute.”
Whether Hopson and other legislators will be willing to take the power to provide their own raises away from the judiciary remains to be seen. Many of the top legislative leaders are attorneys who often must appear before Randolph and the other justices in their private lives to argue cases. They might be reluctant to incur the ire of the Supreme Court.
Hosemann also is an attorney, but at age 75 has directed most of his active work life away from private law practice and toward public service, where he believes in the system set out by the nation’s and state’s founding fathers where the legislative branch appropriates public funds.
Former Gov. Phil Bryant has publicly produced dozens of text messages in an attempt to prove he was unaware that former NFL quarterback Brett Favre was using welfare money for his volleyball project.
The court documents filed Friday come within a court battle between Bryant and the attorney for nonprofit founder Nancy New over whether Bryant should have to produce any more of his communication regarding the welfare-funded volleyball stadium.
In response to a state civil complaint against her, New alleged in July that she had the approval and direction from the governor and other welfare officials to make the allegedly illegal purchases.
Bryant now objects to turning over any more records that New’s attorney Gerry Bufkin has subpoenaed in order to argue New’s defense.
In the latest filing, Bryant’s newly-hired attorney Billy Quin suggests Bufkin lacks the evidence to prove Bryant directed New’s payments – yet the purpose of Bufkin’s subpoena is to obtain additional evidence.
The most-recently filed texts, which were selected by Bryant’s attorney and do not reflect the entirety of communication that exists, show Bryant and Favre discussed in 2017 raising private donations to build a state-of-the-art volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi — both men’s alma mater.
“Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Governor Bryant, New and Favre were pursuing MDHS funds for the USM Volleyball Center,” Bryant’s filing reads.
Other key arguments Bryant’s attorney made in the latest court filing include:
The filing suggests Bryant’s appointed welfare director, John Davis, who pleaded guilty this week to state and federal charges, instantaneously committed $4 million in federal welfare funds to the Favre volleyball project without his boss’s knowledge. The filing produces no texts between Bryant and Davis.
The texts shed more light on the pressure that Favre and New attempted to place on Bryant in 2019 in order to secure even more money from the Mississippi Department of Human Services, an agency under Bryant’s control. They even proposed naming the facility after Bryant — a gesture that was meant to be a surprise, but, “Due to the urgency in getting this secured, we felt it appropriate to share,” they wrote in a proposal.
“She’s relentless,” the governor’s attorney texted Bryant in September of 2019.
“Nancy is worrying,” Bryant responded. “She know[s] what they were doing was wrong.”
Knowing that the auditor’s office was investigating welfare spending, Bryant spoke frankly to Favre about their need to follow federal spending regulations and agency regulations around contract procurement.
“We are going to get there. This was a great meeting,” Bryant texted Favre in September of 2019, directly after they met with Christopher Freeze, the welfare director who replaced Davis after Davis was suspected of defrauding the agency. “But we have to follow the law. I am to[o] old for Federal Prison. [smiley face, sunglasses emoji].”
Texts indicate that during this time in late 2019, Bryant had shifted normal course. “Until Audit has [completed] its work I am staying out of all decisions that the agency will make,” Bryant texted New, according to the most recent filing.
The text messages appearing in this story are quoted from Bryant’s court filing, with editing from his attorney.
In 2017 and 2018, New’s nonprofit paid $5 million to the volleyball construction and $1.1 million to Favre directly. But by 2019, builders needed more funding to complete the project, and Favre became worried that he would be left holding the bag, as he was the one who initially committed the funds. As investigators cracked down on Mississippi Department of Human Services and the New nonprofit, the welfare funding dried up and Favre began talking to other state agencies about getting the rest of the money to finish the project. It’s unclear what, if any, other public money wound up going to the volleyball project.
Nancy New’s son Zach New pleaded guilty in April to defrauding the government by acting “with John Davis and others at their direction, to disguise the USM construction project as a ‘lease’ as a means of circumventing the limited purpose grant’s strict prohibition against ‘brick and mortar’ construction projects.”
The Favre-related payments reflect a small portion of a scheme to misspend $77 million in funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program during the last four years of Bryant’s administration. Most of the money flowed through two nonprofits who were running a state-sanctioned anti-poverty program called Families First for Mississippi, which Favre references in texts to Bryant.
According to the filing, Favre first reached out to Bryant about fundraising in April of 2017.
“Deanna and I are building a volleyball facility on campus and I need your influence somehow to get donations and or sponsorships. Obviously Southern has no money so I’m hustling to get it raised,” Favre texted the governor.
“We will have that thing built before you know it,” Bryant responded.
In July of 2017, Davis, New and Favre met with University of Southern Mississippi officials to discuss the welfare department supporting the volleyball stadium construction. Not long after, New texted Favre that she had “just got off the phone with Phil Bryant! He is on board with us! We will get this done!”
“New did not tell Governor Bryant that she and Davis had arranged to contribute $4 million in TANF funds to the project,” Bryant’s filing reads. “She simply explained that she was helping Favre gain university approval of the project and it appeared the university would ultimately approve it. Just as he had indicated to Favre, Bryant told New that he would assist them in raising private donations and corporate sponsorships to help fund the project.”
The project involved New’s nonprofit entering a five-year, $5 million lease of the university’s athletic facilities, which it would purportedly use to provide programming to the community’s underserved population. The filing explains that the lease agreement was approved by university attorneys, then the Institutes for Higher Learning’s appointed Attorney General’s Office attorney. A USM announcement said the project would be funded by Mississippi Community Education Center and private donations.
Later, in May of 2018, Favre reached out again to Gov. Bryant for help constructing lockers for the facility.
“I’m still trying to save money on [the] Vball facility,” Favre texted.
Favre even suggested “the prison industry possibly as a builder.”
HGTV star and woodworker Ben Napier assisted with constructing the lockers on Bryant’s request, according to the filing.
The filing says Bryant first learned that the welfare department had funded the volleyball project through a text Favre sent him in July of 2019, after Bryant had ousted Davis from office.
“I’m on [my] way and I’m sure I won’t have time [or] privacy enough to speak about this so I want you to know how much I love Nancy New and John Davis,” Favre texted Bryant, according to the filing. “What they have done for me and Southern Miss is amazing. Her family’s first is incredible and she cares. We were planning to do workshops and youth clinics in the new Vball facility with her families first kids. And also[,] I paid for 3/4 of Vball facility and the rest was a joint project with her and John which was saving me 1.8 million. I was informed today that she may not be able to fund her part. I and we need your help very badly Governor and sorry to even bring this up.”
The filing notes that while Bryant had no reason to question Favre’s characterization of the funding, Favre’s message was inaccurate, considering the welfare department had paid much more than $1.8 million.
“Moreover, based on the content and tenor of Favre’s text message, it is also apparent that Governor Bryant did not know what had previously transpired between New, Davis, and Favre regarding the funding of the USM Volleyball Center,” the filing reads. “If, as MCEC and certain press members have insinuated, Governor Bryant was directing the funding for the project, why did Favre provide him a synopsis of the project’s funding history? And why did Favre provide details of the funding history to the governor? Regardless of the answer to these questions, the record is clear that USM and its attorneys, the IHL Board, and the state attorney general’s office all approved a $5 million payment of TANF funds from MCEC to construct the facility without Governor Bryant’s involvement.”
At this point, however, Bryant did begin aiding Favre and New in their efforts to seek additional funding from the welfare department.
New sent the proposal to the governor’s office – with a project title of “The Dewey Phillip Bryant Center for Excellence at the University of Southern Mississippi focusing on Obesity, Bullying Prevention and Personal Development Project.” Bryant suggested ways to reword the proposal to pass muster at the department.
Favre texted New, ‘[the Governor] said to me just a second ago that he has seen [the funding proposal] but hint hint that you need to reword it to get it accepted,” reads Bufkin’s Sept. 12 motion.
But by 2020, Bryant’s filing says, the governor had instructed Freeze to cease payments to New’s nonprofit.
This appears to conflict with State Auditor Shad White’s statement that the February 2020 arrests were necessary in order to stop the flow of funds to the perpetrators.
“Just his (Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens’) decision alone to indict those individuals, who we then arrested, likely saved the taxpayers millions and millions of dollars of welfare funds because we know now that more money was prepared to be pumped out to those same individuals who have today plead guilty to fraud,” White said after Davis’ plea hearing Thursday.
A review of state expenditures shows that Mississippi Community Education Center received its last TANF payment of nearly $1.4 million on Dec. 6, 2019, though the nonprofit did receive a few smaller food assistance payments after that time.
After Bryant left office in early 2020, the filing explains that Favre continued to push for Bryant’s help, and Bryant consulted Favre about lobbying the Legislature for bonds to finish out the volleyball construction.
Bryant also talked to then-USM President Rodney Bennett about the predicament.
“I’ve asked Brett not to do the things he’s doing to seek funding from state agencies and the legislature for the volleyball facility,” Bennett texted Bryant in late January 2020, according to the filing. “As you know, IHL has a process of how we request and get approval for projects and what he’s doing is outside those guidelines. I will see, for the ‘umpteenth time’ if we can get him to stand down. The bottom line is he personally guaranteed the project, and on his word and handshake we proceeded. It’s time for him to pay up – it really is just that simple.”
After the auditor’s office arrested New and Davis in February of 2020, Favre again asked if Bryant had spoken to the incoming Gov. Tate Reeves about the project. Bryant forwarded a link to a story about the embezzlement case to Favre, saying, “This has been the problem. Not sure what funding will be available in the future.”
Bryant then again encouraged Favre to meet with Reeves to explore a bond bill.
Bryant’s latest court filing in the state’s ongoing civil suit is an objection to a motion to compel that Bufkin filed on behalf of New’s nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center. Bufkin wants Bryant to publicly produce all of his communication surrounding the volleyball deal. Bryant’s attorney Billy Quin argues the information is privileged and irrelevant to the civil suit.
While the volleyball stadium is not a subject of the state’s civil suit, Mississippi Department of Human Services is suing New and Favre over the $1.1 million payment New’s nonprofit made to Favre under a promotional agreement. The suit also targets over $2 million in welfare payments to a pharmaceutical start-up company called Prevacus, another project on which Favre and Bryant worked together.
Texts show Favre suggested New pay him $1.1 million under an advertising contract as a way to get more money to the volleyball project. This is one way Bufkin is arguing the relevancy of Bryant’s involvement in the volleyball stadium to the allegations against his clients.
“Governor Bryant was not involved in crafting the (advertising) arrangement, and he had no knowledge of its existence. Clearly, the concept of passing through funds to USM was not Governor Bryant’s idea,” Bryant’s filing reads.
Bufkin filed the original subpoena on July 25; Quin wrote a letter objecting to the subpoena on Aug. 26; and Bufkin filed the motion to compel on Sept. 12, attaching several text messages between New, Favre and Bryant. Bufkin’s filing made national airwaves, catapulting the Mississippi welfare scandal into every major national news outlet.
“MCEC filed the present motion and attached numerous text messages to create a media frenzy that distracts from New’s felonious conduct,” Bryant’s latest filing reads. “MCEC’s primary intention with the present motion is not to seek legitimate discovery, but rather to create a media circus. The purpose of this response is to set the record straight regarding Governor Bryant’s knowledge of and involvement with the USM Volleyball Center project.”
Bryant’s filing also asks the court to quash the subpoena or to place any subpoenaed documents under a protective order. He also asks that the court sanction the nonprofit for abusing their subpoena power.
Quin argues that any more text messages Bryant might be required to produce should be shielded from the public because of how they may be portrayed in the media.
“In a court of law, Governor Bryant has the right to respond to unfounded or misguided allegations before an impartial court,” the motion reads. “This is not true with the media. Media members sometimes carry biases and unfounded and unfair opinions that impact their work. Instead of impartially seeking the truth, the media member sometimes seeks to reinforce her already-existing beliefs, however unfounded they may be. This can result in a social media echo-chamber of confirmation bias that unduly influences court proceedings and biases potential jurors against parties and/or witnesses. And this influence threatens the integrity of this court’s proceedings.”
Mississippi is one of only 13 states that tax groceries, and at 7%, the state’s tax is the highest in the nation.
View the data on the states that tax their groceries, including standard sales tax rates:
Grocery taxes only continue to burden low-income people, which compounds another problem of food insecurity: Mississippi has the highest food insecurity rate in the country, according to 2020 data provided by Feeding America.
Mississippi, the poorest state, also has one of the highest sales tax rates across the board, matching Indiana, Rhode Island and Tennessee. California has the highest sales tax of 7.25%.
The debate on whether or not to cut Mississippi's grocery tax has persisted for years, with late politician Alan Nunnelee calling the 7% tax "the most cruel tax any government can impose" as far back as 2007.
As Bobby Harrison reported in a 2020 analysis, Vice President for State Fiscal Policy Michael Leachman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argued that Mississippi — the first state to impose a modern-day sales tax — did so because of race, at least partially.
To quote Harrison, "Even if Mississippi politicians are given a huge benefit of the doubt on the issue of race that history tells us they might not deserve, it is fair to assume that a high percentage of people whom [former Gov. Mike] Connor was referencing as paying no taxes were African American. After all, because of the higher levels of poverty among Black residents, they had then and have now less property and income to tax.
Many of the states where the higher sales taxes can be found are in the South. And only three states levy as much sales tax on food as they do on other retail items. Two of those also are Southern states — Mississippi and Alabama — with the other being South Dakota."
As of 2022, the number of states that levy their full sales tax on food is now seven: Alabama, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
Elected officials, though they discuss the possibility of cutting the grocery tax, have consistently stated that income tax is their priority.
• Tennessee exempted taxes on food. Mississippi exempted taxes on guns.
• Grocery tax cut considered, but never acted upon by state’s political leadership
• Key House leader says Mississippi should cut highest-in-nation grocery tax
While officials on the state and local level continue to discuss the best options for a long-term fix of Jackson’s water problems, Politico is reporting that on the federal level House Democrats may designate as much as $200 million for the beleaguered city water system.
The national publication reported that Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, who represents the state’s 2nd District, which includes much of Jackson, said he is pushing for an appropriation of $200 million. The funds would be part of legislation to continue funding the federal government past Sept. 30, presumably meaning the money could be appropriated soon if agreement is reached on the bill.
The money, Politico reported, would go straight to the city and bypass the Republican leadership of the state.
Often, the Republican leaders of the state and the Democratic leaders of Jackson, the state’s capital and largest city, have been at odds on how to fix the water system that serves about 180,000 customers.
Thompson, though, also has questioned the city’s ability to develop a plan to fix the system. The system had been under a boil water notice for much of the summer, and in late August both state and federal emergency declarations were issued when many customers of the system lost pressure and the entire system was placed under a strict boil water notice.
Water pressure has been restored and the boil water notice lifted. But the cost of long-term repairs to a distribution system that is more than 100 years old could be $1 billion, some have estimated.
Both Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Philip Gunn said talks are ongoing on the long-term fix.
“The long-term solution is a little more challenging,” Gunn said, compared to the “temporary” fix that restored water pressure and lifted the boil water notice.
Millsaps College, which often is listed as one of the top small schools in the nation, recently wrote state leaders calling for a special session of the Legislature to try to develop a long-term fix. Millsaps, the letter said, is waiting for permits to be approved to drill its own water well, but still believed a long-term fix of the city system would be in the best interest of the school and the city of Jackson.
”The issues related to the city’s water system, infrastructure and safety concerns present ongoing challenges to our ability to safely and adequately provide a world-class educational experience to the students who come to Millsaps from across the country and around the globe,” Millsaps President Robert Pearigen wrote. “We are not alone in this, as our colleagues at Belhaven University and Jackson State University are similarly impacted.”
Pearigen added, “Our efforts to recruit students to Millsaps have always included the promotion of the city as a vibrant, exciting and engaging location, full of opportunity and promise for students during their collegiate career and after they graduate and enter the workforce. Prospective and even current students and their parents are now asking questions about the infrastructure of the city and the college’s ability to provide a safe and healthy learning environment.”
Others also have called for a special session. But Thompson said on the Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast earlier this month it might be best to wait for the regular session of the Mississippi Legislature to deal with the issue, giving time to develop more consensus on who will govern the system going forward.
Gov. Tate Reeves, who has the sole authority to call a special session, has not given any indication he plans to do so. But the governor has indicated that a long-term fix could mean the operation of the system is removed from the city of Jackson.
Some advocates have called for both state and local officials being bypassed, and that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assume oversight of the system.
Whether those issues would be addressed if $200 million is set aside for the Jackson water system remains to be seen.
Providing help for the Jackson water system in the September budget bill seems to also have support of some Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation.
In early September, Hyde-Smith, who is on the Senate Appropriations Committee, wrote a letter to the Biden administration asking that it include funds for the city of Jackson.
“The same day that the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator and other White House officials traveled to Mississippi to ‘ensure’ Jackson had everything needed to restore its water quality, OMB (the Office of Management and Budget) submitted an emergency funding request addressing a host of issues deemed critical by the Biden administration. The city of Jackson was not included,” Hyde-Smith said. “Jackson’s water crisis is nothing short of a full-blown emergency, and it’s disappointing and concerning that the city’s water and wastewater infrastructure needs did not make it in the administration’s $47.1 billion emergency request.”
Hosemann said he recently met jointly with Thompson and Republican Rep. Michael Guest, who also represents a portion of Jackson, to discuss possible solutions.
Gov. Tate Reeves on Friday named his picks to run the state Public Utilities Staff and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks, with both choices drawing the ire of one of the state’s largest environmental groups.
Reeves named State Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, as Public Utilities Staff director. He named former state senator and former Public Service Commissioner Lynn Posey to run MDWFP, where he has been serving as interim director.
Reeves praised Beckett and Posey and said, “Each have a long track record of distinguished public service.”
Beckett replaces Sally Doty, appointed by Reeves in 2020, who left that agency earlier this year to run the state’s new broadband expansion office.
Beckett has served in the Legislature for 19 years, including an eight-year stint as chair of the Public Utilities Committee.
“Affordability (of utility bills) is going to be a challenge for our citizens, but we will make every effort to do so,” Beckett said.
Mississippi Sierra Club Director Louie Miller said he believes Beckett is too cozy with the large utility companies he will now help regulate. He called both Beckett and Posey “political hacks” and said the governor should have chosen more qualified directors.
“All you have to do is look at Jim Beckett’s campaign contributions and the legislation that he has sponsored to know that he is a wholly-owned subsidiary of out-of-state, multi-billion dollar utility monopolies doing business in Mississippi,” Miller said. “We know what he’s about, and it’s not protecting the consumer or advancing clean energy.”
The Public Utilities Staff was created in 1990 to provide technical assistance and make recommendations to the elected, three-member Public Service Commission. The independent staff office was created in an effort to remove politics and corruption from oversight and rate setting of public utilities.
The elected Public Service Commission is required to submit a list of at least three people to the governor for a utilities staff director. The governor’s choice is subject to approval by the state Senate. The people the PSC had submitted for consideration were: Beckett, former Texas lawmaker and Texas Railroad Commission Chair Elizabeth Ames Coleman, David Boackle, an engineer on the Public Utilities Staff and state Sen. Philip Moran, R-Kiln.
Elected Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley on Friday said: “Although a political appointment, the actual job of executive director is very non-partisan and should be based on good regulatory policy as an advisor to the PSC. At the end of the day, decisions are made by the three elected commissioners, but I’ve seen these two agencies work best in the past when the goal has been to work together in pursuit of the public interest. I certainly hope Mr. Beckett shares that same philosophy.”
Posey replaces MDWFP Director Sam Polles, the longest tenured director in the agency’s history, who announced his retirement early this year after 29 years. Polles was appointed by Gov. Kirk Fordice and had served under five governors.
Reeves said Posey has “a long legacy of commitment to the outdoors and … has helped protect our natural resources.” Posey in the state Senate served as chairman of the Wildlife Fisheries and Parks Committee. He later served as Public Service Commissioner from 2008 to 2016.
“The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks touches lives in all 82 counties every day,” Posey said Friday. “Outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing is what Mississippi is all about.”
Polles had been praised by many for expanding wildlife management areas and the state’s lakes system, providing more hunting and fishing opportunities, and construction of the new Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. But he had also been criticized for allowing state parks to deteriorate and pushing plans to privatize them.
Posey on Friday thanked the governor and lawmakers for providing more money this year to rehabilitate state parks, and vowed to “make our park system one that every citizen of this state can be proud of and enjoy.”
But Miller said that so far during his time as assistant director and interim director at MDWF, Posey has supported privatization.
“He has shown he has no interest in keeping state parks public, so Mississippians can afford a vacation,” Miller said. “He’s proven that with wanting to privatize several state parks in Mississippi. That speaks volumes about where his interest is, rather than trying to rebuild this park system with monies that have come down from Washington.”
Miller said that as PSC commissioner, Posey also voted approval for Mississippi Power Co.’s failed Kemper County coal gassification plant — one of the largest energy boondoggles in U.S. history.
“He was a consistent yes vote for the $7.5 billion boondoggle,” Miller said. “I don’t think his track record serves him sell as somebody who would be a steward of our public natural resources.”
MDWFP is governed by a five-member commission, with members appointed by the governor. The commission sends a list of at least three people for the governor to choose, subject to approval by the state Senate.
Also on Friday, at the same press conference in Hernando, Reeves announced his appointment Robert “Bob” Morris III as district attorney for the 17th Circuit Court District. Morris will finish the term of longtime DA John Champion, who died earlier this month.
A superintendent, a country singer, and the Grenada County sheriff were among the 69 friends, family and local officials who wrote letters last month asking a Lafayette County Circuit Court judge to release Sheldon Timothy Herrington, Jr., the University of Mississippi graduate charged with the murder of Jimmie “Jay” Lee.
As nearly a dozen protesters outside chanted so loudly they could be heard in the second-floor courtroom on Aug. 9, the letters from many of the people who sat behind Herrington advocated for a different outcome to the nearly six-hour hearing – for Judge Gray Tollison to release the 22-year-old to his parents.
One family friend put it this way: “Truthfully, I cannot think of anything negative when speaking on behalf of Sheldon Timothy Herrington.”
The letters to Tollison – all written before evidence was presented at the hearing – described the Herrington that his community in Grenada knew: Not Tim, but “Timmy,” the soft-spoken son of an “influential” family who wore glasses in high school, sang in the choir and played guitar at church, and always called his teachers “sir” and “ma’am.”
“He was an excellent student and worked extremely hard toward reaching his educational goals,” wrote David Daigneault, the superintendent of the Grenada School District who taught Herrington’s father, aunt and uncle at Grenada High School. “Timmy is well respected by his fellow classmates and teachers.”
It’s typical for friends and family to write character letters to help their accused loved one obtain bond. In Herrington’s case, the amount of letters is notable and reflects the esteem his family has in Grenada, a small town of about 12,500 people an hour’s drive south of Oxford on MS-Highway 7.
To Tevin Coleman, Herrington’s half-brother, the number of people who wrote letters is demonstrative of his brother’s innocence.
“I mean, you seen the people that got up and the people that have known him since he was a child all the way to now,” Coleman told Mississippi Today. “When it comes down to it, we’re all in shock, we’re all devastated, and we are all looking forward to proving his innocence.”
Despite these pleas, Tollison denied Herrington bond after the prosecution presented evidence that he was planning to move to Dallas and had, the day before Lee was murdered, looked up flights to Singapore. He’ll wait in the Lafayette County Detention Center for a grand jury hearing, likely some time next year.
Meanwhile, police still have not found Lee’s body more than 75 days after he went missing. Lee is the third feminine-presenting queer person killed in Mississippi this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign – a number that reflects the high rate of violence against the state’s small LGBTQ community.
The Oxford Police Department has not shared new information about the case since the preliminary hearing when Ryan Baker, a detective, testified that Herrington drove a moving truck to Grenada the same day that he allegedly killed Lee and retrieved a shovel and wheelbarrow from his parent’s house in the GlenBrook neighborhood.
But it’s unclear to what extent OPD is working with law enforcement in Grenada. The sheriff, Rolando Fair, told Mississippi Today he could not comment because “the investigation is not my investigation” and no one from Oxford has reached out to him personally even though officers executed a search warrant on Herrington’s parent’s house in late July.
In his letter to the judge, Fair wrote he has known Herrington’s family for over 20 years.
“They have been pillars in our community and in the church,” Fair wrote. “Sheldon and Tina Herrington are members of various organizations that have helped and changed so many people’s lives. I have also known Sheldon Timothy Herrington, Jr. since he was a small child, never had any problems with him.”
Lee’s killing has garnered national attention and sparked a movement – called Justice for Jay Lee – to keep his legacy alive by protesting outside Herrington’s hearings and pushing for more protections for LGBTQ people in Oxford.
Braylyn Johnson, a member of Justice for Jay Lee who was his roommate in college, also knew Herrington through campus organizations like the Black Student Union and the student government Black Caucus.
She said the evidence against Herrington does not sound like the person she knew, but that the disconnect did not make her believe he is innocent. She referred to the Snapchat messages Herrington sent Lee after they hooked up on the morning of July 8 and his Google search, “how long does it take to strangle someone gabby petito.”
“It was cryptic to me as somebody that had been around Tim for all of these years and had been acquainted with him,” she said. “Those messages did not seem like they came from Tim, but … from I don’t know, John Wayne Gacy, somebody weird.”
Coleman said he thought the prosecution made assumptions about his brother during the preliminary hearing and that he couldn’t tell if all of the evidence presented was factual.
“I don’t truly know in regard to, if that was really Tim that sent the Snapchat messages,” he said. “I mean, they’re saying it is, so there’s a possibility that it is him in the Snapchat messages, so I mean, that could be factual.”
At the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor, Tiffany Kilpatrick, argued Herrington lived a double-life unknown to his family and friends in Grenada.
Many people from Grenada wrote that the crime did not sound like the Herrington they knew.
“We continue to follow the unbelievable news that Tim has been arrested and is facing an incredible charge,” country singer Charlie Worsham and his parents wrote to the judge. “We find this difficult to believe and completely incongruent with the person we know.”
According to the Worshams’ letter, Herrington taught guitar classes with a minority outreach program for their nonprofit, Follow Your Heart Arts, minority outreach program.
Multiple letters describe Herrington’s family as “exceptional” and “god-fearing,” a reputation that comes in large part from Abundant Life Assembly, an Apostolic Christian church founded 40 years ago by Herrington’s grandfather, James. Herrington’s father, Sheldon, is also involved as an assistant pastor.
The brick church sits on a grass hill a few minutes from downtown. Herrington grew up following his grandfather around the property like a shadow, James wrote in his letter to the judge, assisting with clean-up after fellowship dinners, playing guitar at worship, teaching Sunday school and mentoring young boys.
“He has always wanted to be like his Papaw,” James wrote, adding later, “He really is a great young man.”
Herrington’s arrest on July 22 was devastating, James wrote, and he was praying not just for his family, but for Lee’s. If the judge granted Herrington bail, James wrote that “with his influence,” he knew his grandson would comply with any stipulations.
Mississippi Today called the church to reach James. Sheldon answered and said the family is “not permitted to talk to anyone,” but Coleman called a reporter a few hours later.
Several members of Herrington’s family work in the school district. His mother, Tina, is an administrator in the central office and his uncle, Reginald, is an assistant principal for an elementary school.
Daigneault, the superintendent, was subpoenaed by his attorney, state Rep. Kevin Horan, to testify during the bond hearing. Herrington’s father was subpoenaed too, though neither were called to the stand. When reached by a Mississippi Today reporter, Daigneault said he will help any student in the school district but had no additional comment.
Twenty-six letters were from current and former teachers and administrators in the district, as well as the principals of the elementary, middle and high schools. Many recalled watching Herrington grow up and how he was respectful in the classroom.
“‘Yes Mam’ and ‘No Mam’ are just a natural part of his vocabulary,” one teacher wrote.
His teachers noted Herrington had never been in trouble before.
“I never saw Timothy act violently toward anybody,” wrote a former principal of Grenada Middle School who now works with Herrington’s mom in the central office. “From my experiences with Timmy, I can’t imagine him committing this charge of murder. I can’t even imagine Timmy getting in a fight.”
Herrington’s family’s reputation is proof he would not flee the state, a former elementary school counselor in Grenada wrote.
“For generations, the Herringtons have worked hard, studied well, earned college degrees, chosen admirable careers to make a true difference for others, and established successful lives in their community,” the counselor wrote. “Their accomplishments do not make their child a flight risk.”
Johnson, the member of Justice for Jay Lee, said that she feels like people in Oxford who had initially defended Herrington stopped talking about the case once they saw the evidence from last month’s hearing.
She said that when communities ignore cases like Lee’s, it contributes to continued violence against queer people.
“These aren’t the type of stories that people should be using for a ‘wow factor,’” she said. “These are the types of stories that should be used as an example so that actual change can happen.”
A governor and a prospective governor spoke one week ago about Mississippi’s capital city and its ongoing water crisis.
The contrast was striking.
“I’ve got to tell you, it’s a great day to be in Hattiesburg. It’s also, as always, a great day to not be in Jackson,” Gov. Tate Reeves said Sept. 17 at an economic development event. “I got to take off my emergency management director hat and leave it in the car and take off my public works director hat and leave it in the car.”
A few hours before the governor made the comment that made national news, Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a potential 2023 challenger of Reeves, sat for an extended interview with Mississippi Today about Jackson’s water woes.
“I’m a Mississippian, and we should all be concerned about it because it’s our capital city and this ain’t the signal we ought to be sending the entire country,” Presley said Sept. 17 on Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast. “The blame game’s gotta quit, it’s gotta stop. And we’ve got to get to a point in which we say we got this fixed, got this behind us.”
The contrast in leadership styles between the two runs deeper than just their public comments. While Reeves continues taking shots at Jackson city leaders and the city’s residents living through a continuing crisis, Presley is meeting with principal officials to discuss long-term solutions.
Presley, a Democrat who represents north Mississippi, has met with key Democrats with a major stake in the water crisis, including Congressman Bennie Thompson and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. Presley, according to sources in those meetings, has offered up resources from the Public Service Commission to expedite and support proposed plans.
The Democrat is also leveraging some key relationships he’s built over the years with legislative Republicans. Presley, who in his 15 years on the Public Service Commission has gotten numerous bills passed with the blessing and support of Republicans, has met several times in recent weeks with top GOP legislative leaders about Jackson water crisis solutions.
“Haley Barbour used to say, ‘Good policy is good politics.’ And that’s the truth,” Presley said on the podcast. “Everybody can come out of this looking like judicious, leaderful statesmen if we do this in a manner that is respectful across the board but understanding it’s got to be results-oriented. And let’s not be dishonest in our jargon, let’s not be dishonest in our plans. Let’s talk about practical solutions.
“You cannot say you’re going to ignore Congressman Thompson, ignore city government, or even ignore state government,” Presley continued. “None of that’s gonna work. We can’t take that attitude and expect to build public confidence. It’s gotta be built to get through this mess.”
Meanwhile, Reeves has not been in meetings about long-term solutions with Republicans at the Capitol, with Thompson, or with Lumumba.
Reeves deserves credit for leading both the state’s effort to get the city’s water pressure restored after the system failed on Aug. 27 and getting the state-issued boil water notice lifted a few days later. In the early days of the crisis, he went out of his way to not be critical of the city or its leadership.
But search “Tate Reeves water crisis” on Google today. You wouldn’t know he led any positive, helpful effort. He’s negated his good work with political belligerence and petty backtalk.
Throughout the crisis, Reeves gave major updates to the public without first communicating with the mayor, leaving the many Jacksonians desperate for basic information with conflicting accounts of what was being done on the ground. Reeves’ staff, with his apparent blessing, went out of their way to exclude the mayor from their response efforts.
“We have not invited city politicians to these substantive state press conferences on our repairs, because they occur to provide honest information about the state’s work,” a Reeves staffer tweeted during the height of the crisis. Reeves retweeted that message from his own account.
When Reeves announced that the state’s boil water notice had been lifted, he was asked why the city’s reports didn’t jive with state reports. Reeves responded, plainly: “I don’t read the city’s daily reports, and I don’t think you should, either.” Meanwhile, Jacksonians to this day are left trying to decipher for themselves which information they can trust.
Presley, in the podcast interview, said that Mississippians he’s talked with — even in north Mississippi — just want results for the state’s capital city.
“People I drink coffee with in Nettleton want to see Jackson thrive, they want to see the water system up, they want to know what they’re gonna have for supper tonight, and they want to know if Nettleton is gonna beat Caledonia at 7 o’clock,” Presley said last week. “And they expect state leaders to stand up and make those things happen, and I think that’s what we’ve got to get to. It involves engagement, though.”
“It’s all about relationships and trust,” Presley said. “… I think any idea that you’re going to have a conversation about Jackson’s water issues without respectfully engaging city leadership of Jackson, Congressman Thompson, the governor, lieutenant governor, and others is out the window. We’ve got to, as much as possible, pop that ego … Ego is the enemy of politics in these situations. If we don’t get rid of it, we’re going to be back in the same shape again.”
Presley continued: “This is a chance for Mississippi to get this right.”
Prospective students toured Hinds Community College’s Nursing and Allied Health Center and received information about the health related programs during the college’s nursing and allied health showcase at its Jackson campus on Sept. 8.
Potential applicants explored the school’s 15 health related programs with information provided by faculty and students at different booths. Staff and professors provided tours of the learning labs informed the group about the school’s admission requirements and deadlines.
The programs range from eight weeks to two-year associate degree programs. During those programs, students have access to the lab, simulation center and offsite clinical settings to prepare them for a career in nursing and allied health.
Clinton High School student James Howe is interested in becoming a physical therapist assistant.
“When I injured my back playing sports, I really couldn’t do anything while I was out for six weeks,” said Howe. “My physical therapist was very amazing, and he inspired me to look into this career field.”
Students like Howe are also attracted to the school’s allied health programs because of the school’s location and affordability.
“Hinds is near home and it is affordable. My mom is a single parent, and I don’t want to live too far away from her, at least at the moment,” he said.
Mississippi residents can attend the school for about $1,750 per semester, and out-of-state residents for about $3,275 per semester.
Aiden Robinson of Brandon might look a lot different today if not for the care he received at the JMS Burn and Reconstruction Center in Jackson in 2019.
Aiden, who was 9 years old at the time, was cooking with his father at their home when he accidentally dumped a pot of boiling water on himself, burning over 80% of his body.
“For best results, burn patients need to be seen as soon as possible. Not all doctors or ER staff even know how to treat the skin of a burn victim, so my fear is, what’s going to happen to those patients now?” said Aiden’s mother Kristel Robinson.
Kristel is referring to the closure of the burn center that cared for her son three years ago. Merit Health Central, where the program is housed, announced in early September the program would close in October. It is the only accredited burn program in the state.
In 2021, the center saw nearly 2,000 admissions and 7,261 clinical visits. Surgical cases totaled 2,776.
Now, several employees of the burn center at Merit Health, who did not wish to be named because they feared retribution from their current or future employers, say they are scrambling to find a new home for the program. They were given just over a month’s notice that the program would be closed, they said, and moving the program to one of the other eight Merit Health locations in the state was not something that interested Merit Health or its parent company Community Health Systems.
“We were told Sept. 7 that we had until Oct. 14 to get out,” one employee told Mississippi Today. “Shock was an understatement due to seeing 600-plus patients a month. We are very concerned for our patients.”
Another employee also felt blindsided.
“For something that’s as vital to the community as this – (it was), we’ll go with, aggressive,” another employee said of the hospital’s decision.
Officials with the hospital did not respond to questions from Mississippi Today by the time of publication.
In the September statement announcing the closure, hospital officials cited the pandemic and recruitment challenges.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and the challenging staffing and recruitment environment have made it increasingly difficult for us to recruit the breadth of specialists needed to maintain the burn program, which is the primary reason we’ve made the difficult decision to close the Burn Center effective Oct. 14, 2022,” the statement said.
While employees reel from the shock of the announcement, leaders are in conversations with hospitals about opening the burn center elsewhere, and they are hopeful things move quickly.
After Oct. 14, however, patients will be redirected to one of the regional burn centers in Augusta, Ga., Memphis, Tenn., Mobile, Ala., or New Orleans, La.
Mississippi’s burn programs in recent years have not fared well. The program formerly run in Greenville by Delta Regional Medical Center closed in 2005. Merit Health opened its burn center with the Burn and Reconstructive Centers of America in 2008.
In 2006, before Merit Health agreed to start a center, state lawmakers approached then vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Dr. Dan Jones.
“The finances of burn care at the time were far less than ideal. Unfortunately, like many health problems, this affects families who have lower incomes more than it does other families … The same problem that was happening in Greenville would become our problem,” Jones said.
He said he went to the Legislature to ask for a yearly commitment to help UMMC run the program. Lawmakers offered UMMC one-time money but no commitment for ongoing funds.
“We made the hard decision that we couldn’t do that,” he said.
Now, more than 10 years later, when asked by Mississippi Today if UMMC is considering taking on a burn center, officials declined to comment.
Before Aiden’s injury, Kristel knew nothing about the burn program. When she and her husband called the ambulance, she assumed Aiden would be taken to Children’s of Mississippi.
“When we arrived (at the burn center), we didn’t have to wait because he was so severe. They let us know that night there was a window of time the doctors needed to save the skin,” she said. “(In order to have) as few surgeries as possible and for recovery to be easier, he would need surgery that night.”
One of the procedures he had was done on his ear. At the time, only three doctors in the country were performing it, Kristel said.
“We’re not just losing a hospital, we’re losing talented doctors, nurses, OT and PTs by the close of this center,” she said.
Aiden required a year of treatment, including some physical therapy, after the accident. He received all of his follow-up care at the burn center clinic, his mom said.
Today, Aiden is 11 years old. The only remnant of his accident is one small scar on his arm and skin that’s extra sensitive to the sun.
“If someone would have told me in 2019 that Aiden would be able to live without scars, I wouldn’t have believed them,” said Kristel.