Contentious council meeting leaves two department head nominees rejected

Contentious council meeting leaves two department head nominees rejected
The Hattiesburg Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #55 issued a statement on their thoughts of the nominated police chief. Photo Source WDAM
The Hattiesburg Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #55 issued a statement on their thoughts of the nominated police chief. Photo Source WDAM

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Two of Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree's department head nominees were approved unanimously Tuesday, but two others were rejected following a heated discussion.

Carol Jones Russell, current judge pro tem, and Shakita Taylor, public defender, were quickly approved, but the nominees for city attorney and chief of police raised concerns, and brought verbal attacks, from the council members.

"We are in this process because of you all.You are still going through sour grapes or putting this community through that because your candidate for mayor of Hattiesburg was not successful," said Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado of the council's rejections of the mayor's nominees and disapproval of current department heads. "It's time to move on."

Ward 4 Councilwoman Mary Dryden quickly disapproved of Delgado's comments, followed by similar responses by Ward 3 Councilman Carter Carroll and Council President Kim Bradley (Ward 1).

Ramel Cotton of Jackson was the mayor's nominee for city attorney, but Bradley said he would not vote for Cotton due to an unpaid bill in Justice Court for a court reporter's work.

"I think the paperwork speaks for itself," said Bradley, when DuPree and Delgado tried to speak and asked for Cotton, who was in attendance, to respond to Bradley's comments.

"There are many times things speak for themselves and there are questions about them," said DuPree.

According to Ward 5 Councilman Henry Naylor, a majority vote would have to be held to suspend the rules in order for Cotton to address the council. That did not happen, and he was rejected 3-2 (Delgado, Naylor), leaving the mayor to search for another nominee.

Next up was the vote for chief of police nominee Jimmie Gardner, which originally did not get a motion for a vote, until Carroll made a motion to deny.

Carroll discussed a letter dated February 27 that was sent to the mayor and council from the Hattiesburg chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which stated their vote of no confidence for the mayor's nominee for chief of police.

"Due to our findings, it has been determined that should this candidate be chosen, it would continue the undue turmoil that is currently being experienced by members of the Hattiesburg Police Department," the letter stated, which was signed by chapter president Allen Murray.

"I support our policemen, and I think this letter speaks volumes," explained Carroll of his decision to deny Gardner, who was terminated as chief of the Prichard, Alabama department in 2013.

Bradley also said Gardner's exit from Prichard "really failed to show character," another point mentioned in the FOP letter.

"His contract had expired, but yet he still wanted to serve," said Bradley. "He put himself above the law... We've got chaos and issues here. We certainly don't need any more crap like that."

However, Delgado said the reason her counterparts would not vote for Gardner was because he was black, and they were white.

"It's about race... You never do [mention race], but we're not stupid," she said to Bradley.

"I've been thrown the race card so many times because people confuse accountability with racism," Bradley responded. "People have to do their job, and if they can't do their job, they need to get their butt out and go find another job. Plain and simple."

The council went on to deny Gardner's nomination 3-0-2 on a motion to deny, with Delgado and Naylor abstaining.

The mayor is on a continuing order by Judge Breland Hilburn to present all of his nominees to the council by a February 23 deadline. The mayor obliged in an 11th-hour submission before the court hearing last Monday, but the judge said his decision on the case would come after the council voted on his submissions.

Although it is unknown how the judge will move forward, DuPree must now find nominees for the positions of city clerk, chief of police and city attorney.