State Au­di­tor in­ves­ti­ga­tion a les­son to elected of­fi­cials

Starkville Daily News - - FRONT PAGE - RYAN PHILLIPS

Ear­lier this week, the Starkville Daily News was the first to break a story about an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into prac­tices by the Ok­tibbeha County Board of Su­per­vi­sors by the State Au­di­tor's of­fice.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion came after the agency re­ceived an anony­mous tip that District 3 Su­per­vi­sor Marvell Howard made an il­le­gal agree­ment with an un­know­ing Ok­tibbeha County res­i­dent to pro­vide them with the left­over re­sources and com­po­nents from a con­demned bridge - namely bridge pan­els and I-beams.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, the com­po­nents given to them in­clude about six mil­i­tary-grade pan­els and six iron I-beams, the es­ti­mated value of which is ap­prox­i­mately $2,800.

While some may ar­gue that this was noth­ing more than an hon­est ar­range­ment, aimed at sav­ing the tax­pay­ers money, I be­lieve that we are see­ing a prac­tice that could be in­dica­tive of the way the county does busi­ness out­side of the board­room.

And I'm not solely talk­ing about whether it was right or wrong for the county to give the bridge pan­els away.

It ap­pears the en­tire in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­gan as the re­sult of bad blood on the Board of Su­per­vi­sors. I'm thank­ful that we know what we do now, but I can't help but feel the light shed on Howard's ac­tions was the re­sult of a deep-seated po­lit­i­cal agenda against him.

I re­spect whistle­blow­ers with ev­ery­thing I've got, but the anony­mous tip sub­mit­ted to the State Au­di­tor's of­fice shows a Board of Su­per­vi­sors in tur­moil - wrought with in­fight­ing and in­ca­pable of putting the needs of their con­stituents above their petty po­lit­i­cal agen­das.

And this Board of Su­per­vi­sors has a short, but col­or­ful his­tory of volatile di­vi­sive­ness that es­tab­lishes prece­dent for the vin­dic­tive­ness seen in Howard be­ing outed to the State Au­di­tor's of­fice.

Did it need to hap­pen? Yes. Should it have been han­dled dif­fer­ently? You bet.

In short, a shady prac­tice was coun­ter­acted with an equally-shady re­sponse - in­stead of Howard be­ing con­fronted in the open and the is­sue be­ing dis­cussed in a pub­lic fo­rum so cit­i­zens could be aware of how the deal went down.

And it is also a cry­ing shame the com­mu­nity had to first learn about this from the lo­cal news­pa­per.

While it un­der­scores the need for strong com­mu­nity jour­nal­ism, it also would have been swept un­der the rug if not for the ef­forts of one in­trepid reporter who chased the story for months.

This isn't to pat our­selves on the back at the news­pa­per. Rather, it spot­lights a Board of Su­per­vi­sors that needs to be taken to task for the way it con­ducts busi­ness. On the heels of the highly-con­tentious ref­er­en­dum vote con­cern­ing OCH Re­gional Med­i­cal Cen­ter, which split the county into an­gry fac­tions, the need for trans­parency at the county level has never been more ap­par­ent.

On its face, the su­per­vi­sors didn't col­lude with Rus­sia or sell mil­i­tary se­crets to North Korea, but they did do busi­ness on be­half of the county with­out an or­der from the Board, which is not le­gal ac­cord­ing to the board at­tor­ney.

Board At­tor­ney Rob Rober­son con­firmed to the Starkville Daily News that a board or­der con­cern­ing the bridge pan­els never ex­isted, so the act of giv­ing away county prop­erty for no cost and with­out board ap­proval is noth­ing short of il­le­gal.

The is­sue con­cern­ing the bridge com­po­nents was never put on an agenda and it seems dif­fi­cult for su­per­vi­sors to jus­tify the “confusion” that re­sulted in a state in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Es­pe­cially fol­low­ing the hospi­tal ref­er­en­dum, one would not be off-base to as­sume su­per­vi­sors should have been ex­perts in what they can and can't do as it re­lates to county prop­erty.

Ig­no­rance of the law is never an ex­cuse and I hope some­one takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for their ac­tions, re­gard­less of how pre-med­i­tated they might have been.

To be clear, I don't be­lieve Su­per­vi­sor Howard, or any other county of­fi­cials ben­e­fited fi­nan­cially or po­lit­i­cally from this de­ci­sion. But I am con­cerned as an Ok­tibbeha County res­i­dent that this speaks to how the county reg­u­larly man­ages its smaller af­fairs.

And if they handle the lit­tle stuff this way, how are they han­dling the big­ger is­sues?

Luck­ily for the su­per­vi­sors, this is­sue is fairly small pota­toes in the grand scheme of things. It also rep­re­sents a golden op­por­tu­nity for the county to get on the straight-and-nar­row as it re­lates to abid­ing by the laws that gov­ern them and their con­stituents.

The moral of the story here is one that ap­plies to ev­ery elected of­fi­cial, from dog catcher on up to the pres­i­dent of the United States: Al­ways be trans­par­ent.

Trans­parency can be a sub­jec­tive con­cept, but it was a lack of trans­parency that led to a State Au­di­tor's in­ves­ti­ga­tion of our lo­cal elected of­fi­cials.

The county may not even re­ceive a slap on the wrist for th­ese prac­tices, but the cur­tain has of­fi­cially been pulled back, and now, vot­ers have a slightly bet­ter idea of what their su­per­vi­sors are ca­pa­ble of.

At the end of the day, no­body died and it's highly un­likely any­one will end up in jail, but it begs the ques­tion as to what our elected of­fi­cials are do­ing when no­body is looking.

Ryan Phillips is the ex­ec­u­tive editor of the Starkville Daily News and Daily Times Leader. The views ex­pressed in this col­umn are his and do not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect the views and opin­ions of the ei­ther pa­per or their staffs.

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