MS Ethics Commission: HPSD violates code during selection of strategic planning firm

MS Ethics Commission: HPSD violates code during selection of strategic planning firm

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - A preliminary recommendation from the Mississippi Ethics Commission said the Hattiesburg Public School District violated the state's Open Meetings Act during the selection of educational consulting company P3 Strategies.

According to the recommendation written by Tom Hood, the commission's executive director and hearing officer, "the Board of Trustees for the Hattiesburg Public School District violated Sections 25-41-5 and 25-41-7, Miss. Code of 1972, by discussing matters in executive session that should have been discussed in open session at its meeting on May 5, 2015."

It was in two executive sessions on May 5, 2015 that the board officially decided to give a $219,000 contract to educational consulting company P3 Strategies to create a strategic plan for the school district, according to documents given to the ethics commission by HPSD Board Attorney Percy Watson.

While the board originally approved P3 Strategies’ Request for Proposal, or RFP, at a meeting on April 9, 2015, Watson stated in his letter to the commission, “After the April 9, 2015 Board Meeting, allegations surfaced about misconduct involving one of the partners of P3 Strategies, LLC. Also there were allegations that the Superintendent of the Hattiesburg Public School District knew and had worked with one of the partners of P3 and the Board members were not aware of this prior association. Additionally, There were rumors and information that a partner had been engaged in some questionable conduct as a public official in another state.”

In an On Your Side Investigation in October 2015, then Superintendent James Bacchus said he worked with P3 Strategies partner Irving Hamer in Memphis City School District, now Shelby County Schools, from 2008-2011.

"Irving Hamer was my direct supervisor," Bacchus said. "He was the deputy superintendent in Memphis at that time, and that was my person I reported directly to. It's always important to be upfront and very transparent, and I'm very transparent. I have nothing to hide about that, so it was nothing for me to hide."

Watson also said in his letter to the ethics commission, "The Strategic Plan proposal was voted on three times by the Board of trustees. The Board wanted to do due diligence in an effort to make sure that it was contracting with a reputable firm which would research the needs of the District, and present the District with a viable strategic plan."

That same October 2015 On Your Side Investigation revealed the school district made a simple arithmetic error during the bidding process that may have cost taxpayers $164,000.

Watson cited three reasons the board went into executive session:

  • 25-42-7 (4)(a) Transaction of business and discussion of personnel matters relating to the job performance, character, professional competence or physical or mental health of a person holding a specific position.
  • 25-41-7(4)(d) Investigative proceedings by any public body regarding allegations of misconduct or violation of law.
  • 25-41-7(4)(k) Transaction of business and discussions regarding employment or job performance of a person in a specific position or termination of an employee holding a specific position. The exemption provided by this paragraph includes the right to enter into executive session concerning a line item in a budget which might affect the termination of an employee or employees. All other budget items shall be considered in open meeting and final budgetary adoption shall not be taken in executive session.

Hood lists seven conclusions of law that highlight what sees as HPSD's violations of Mississippi's Open Meetings Act.

"The Open Meetings Act was enacted for the benefit of the public and is to be construed liberally in favor of the Public," Hood said. He also quotes the state Supreme Court's summary of the intent of the act, which states, "Every member of every public board and commission in this state should always bear in mind that the spirit of the Act is that a citizen spectator, including any representative of the press, has just as much right to attend the meeting and see and hear everything that is going on as has any member of the board."

Hood also said public bodies are allowed to enter into executive session and exclude the public "only in limited circumstances" according to Sec. 25-41-7(4).

Hood also notes the state supreme court limits "personnel matters" to "matters dealing with employees hired and supervised by the board," which would not include and "an independent contractor such as an accountant, lawyer or architect is not an employee of the board, and would not come under 'personnel.'"

"Therefore," Hood said, "the board violated the Open Meetings Act each and every time it entered into executive session on May 5, 2015, to discuss the proposed contract with P3 Strategies, LLC."

Hood said it is a public body's responsibility to provide a specific reason to go into executive session, and that "there is no statutory executive session reason for discussion of an 'ethical question.' The phrase is completely mysterious and does not justify an executive session."

The commission requires parties to "file specific written objections" within five business days of receiving the preliminary report and recommendation. Watson asked for a 20-day extension "for the Board of Trustees of the Hattiesburg Public School District to file specific objections," and the extension was approved.

Lindsay Kellum, executive assistant for the Mississippi Ethics Commission, said if the HPSD board does file specific objections, they will be heard on May 11, 2016, at an ethics commission hearing in Jackson.

WDAM 7 News reached out to Watson for comment, but he never returned our calls.