Opinion: State Auditor investigation a lesson to elected officials

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 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 Howard and Road Manager Fred Hal Bagget 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 were 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 also 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 its 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.