JCJC President alludes to firing employee over Initiative 42 in email

JCJC President alludes to firing employee over Initiative 42 in email

JONES COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - Emails from Jones County Junior College president Jesse Smith may have alluded to Smith wanting to fire an employee over Initiative 42.

The emails were obtained by The Clarion Ledger through a public records request.

According to The Clarion Ledger, the email was in regards to an employee complaint. The complaint by an employee stated that they felt directed by Smith to vote a certain way on Initiative 42.

According to the article, the email, written by Smith on Aug. 17, said:

"I found out a little. Apparently, one of our esteemed employees called complaining that I told them how to vote on the Initiative 42. My suggestion is if it passes, we start with them. :) "

According to the Clarion Ledger, the email was sent from Smith's JCJC email account. Mississippi law prohibits state employees from using any resources to advocate for or against a political issue, according to the article.

Seven on Your Side has reached out to JCJC for comment on Thursday and JCJC President Jesse Smith gave a statement:

"The impact of Initiative 42's passage in November was discussed with faculty and staff in August, as I informed them about the overall impact declining enrollment and dwindling support from the state has had on our budget. The email was in response to learning budget cuts would essentially mean laying off 15 employees and raising tuition at JCJC, if Initiative 42 passed.  I would not fire anyone because their opinion differed with mine.  I value every employee. The email and the complaint to Gilbert were taken out of context.  I did not tell anyone how to vote or imply they would be fired if they voted for the Initiative."

Earlier emails:

The president of Jones County Junior College is working to garner support against the citizen-sponsored ballot initiative to fund K-12 public education in Mississippi.

JCJC President Jesse Smith sent an e-mail Wednesday morning from his official JCJC address to, what appears to be, the "president's list" of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges.

"When we last met, I proposed that we use our efforts to raise funds to help battle the passing of Ballot Initiative 42," Smith wrote in the e-mail. "If you would like to support the opposition to this initiative of which I fully plan to, the following information will be helpful for contributions."

Smith continued to list information for the Improve Mississippi Political Initiative group, which Smith listed in the e-mail as being created by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn. Smith told WDAM Thursday that he spoke with State Auditor Stacey Pickering the day after sending the e-mail, and it was then that he realized he was not authorized to do so in that capacity.

"It was in error," Smith admitted.

Pickering said that e-mails sent from an official address "can educate but not advocate" political issues. Pickering, citing the federal Hatch Act, said he is concerned with institutions losing some of their funding if they are in violation by advocating a political cause in an official capacity.

Smith defended his stance against Initiative 42 and said he had been in communication with Reeves and Gunn about the PAC.

"We're all trying to help defeat this initiative," he said.

Smith's e-mail ended by observing that the recipients are "in a tenuous position with our local school districts and our superintendents who serve on our Board of Trustees." However, he said he was "wholeheartedly opposed to Initiative 42 because it very well may be the straw that could break the community college back, if it passes."

Opponents of the initiative have said they fear funds being stripped from agencies, including higher education, to fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program by Initiative 42's standards. But, Initiative 42 supporters said that is not how the process would work. Instead, monies would be used only when the state experienced a certain percentage of economic growth.

"This is a blatant example of our elected state leaders misappropriating state resources to defeat a citizen-led initiative," Carroll County Assistant Superintendent Rana Mitchell said in a statement.

Mitchell, who is a supporter of Initiative 42, said this involvement by Reeves and Gunn is hypocritical, as State Auditor Stacey Pickering ordered school leaders two weeks ago to remove material regarding Initiative 42, or the legislative alternative 42-A, from school websites or other platforms.

"This week, the same elected officials are illegally soliciting campaign donations with state resources to defeat that ballot measure," Mitchell said. "The worst part is that we'll never know how deep this hypocrisy runs because of their refusal to release official e-mails."

Mitchell filed a complaint Thursday morning with the state auditor's office against Smith, Reeves and Gunn, asking for an investigation into their involvement with the political committee.

For the first time in Mississippi history, the state legislature created an alternative to Initiative 42, called Initiative 42-A, which will also be on November's ballot. The main difference in the two is that 42-A would not require judicial oversight should the legislature fail to fund MAEP.

Seven On Your Side left a voicemail with Rebekah Staples Thursday morning, who is listed as the manager of the PAC, but have not heard back.

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