Back in May we told you about the purchase of new car by the City of Hazlehurst to be used by Fire Chief Gabe Harvey. The vehicle, a 2011 Dodge Charger, had a price tag of around $22,000 and was then upgraded and outfitted for fire department use, including adding lettering, stripes and other related markings, running the total to nearly $30,000.
However, the explicit approval for the purchase of a new vehicle was never authorized. The Board of Aldermen, in the April 5 meeting, authorized Mayor Henry Banks only to look into new vehicles for the Fire, Street and Water Departments. One only needs to ride through town on a busy day and see that many of the city’s departmental vehicles are aged–some even cost more to keep up than they are worth.
But, some time later, Harvey believed he had permission to purchase a new vehicle and signed for one that was for sale a Jackson area Dodge dealership. Two required bids on the vehicle may or may not have been obtained beforehand, according to comments made by city attorney Olen Bryant at the July 5 meeting.
At the May 10 meeting of the board–during an executive session called by Alderman Dr. Rick Akin to discuss a personnel issue in the police department–three aldermen (Akin, McMillian, Sims) voted to rescind the purchase of the Charger (Sandifer and Shannon-Jones voted nay), reasoning that a truck would be more suited for use by the fire chief. Mayor Henry Banks vetoed the action, saying in open session, “The city is now stuck with the car. It is considered a used vehicle, now.” The aldermen then concurred to transfer it to the Police Department, as they believed it to be more suited for police work.
In Tuesday’s meeting of the board, Bryant announced that the Charger has not–yet–legally been purchased because only one person from the city signed the check. Furthermore, the process to purchase the vehicle was compromised, according to Bryant, because at least one bid could have been post facto. In other words, nothing else was considered before the Charger was acquired–it just happened. And possibly to cover for it, a second bid was acquired with no date on it. No one can say or will say for sure.
A few huge red flags stand out in all this, and residents of Hazlehurst need to take heed. The first is who gave Chief Harvey permission to buy a brand new Dodge Charger–a sports car–or any vehicle? Secondly, why have the other two departments not received new vehicles? Thirdly, why not be transparent about it, get several bids, present them to the board in open session and let them decide what’s best? And, finally, an incomplete check? Really?
At least Mayor Banks did ‘step up to the plate’ last Tuesday to break a 2-2 tie (Alderman Ron Sims was tending to family business) on whether or not to transfer the vehicle to the police department once the purchase has gone through, siding with Akin and McMillian.
Ethical decision made on credit card, cash advances
Also in last Tuesday’s meeting, alderman Shannon-Jones requested the city to adopt a cash advance policy when city employees, including aldermen, have to travel on city business, attempting to replace the current policy of reimbursing the individual the expenses he or she incurs on such business. By law, the city could have allowed the policy.
Shannon-Jones was supported by Alderman Shirley Sandifer on this and the request that the city secure a credit card for similar reasons. The requests died when Mayor Banks did not call for a motion in either case.
Approving such requests would have put the city walking a thin line between what’s ethical and what’s not. Any money or credit extended to a public official or employee can not be used for personal expenses. In many cases, that distinction can be blurred by the individual. As Akin commented, abuse of credit card privileges eventually got former members of the now-defunct HCSD school board in hot water with auditors. That door simply did not need to be opened.
Kudos to Mayor Banks for allowing these two fiscally non-sensical requests to die.
Joe Buck Coates