Headlines – 10/28/2005

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 28, 2005

The Panolian: HEADLINES – October 28, 2005

  From the 10/28/05 issue of The Panolian :                    

Halloween curfews set
Halloween curfews have been set in Panola’s municipalities for Monday night. In Sardis and Como, curfew is 9 p.m. In Batesville, youngsters can stay out an hour later, with a 10 p.m. curfew set by the board of aldermen.
SP schools out Tuesday
South Panola School District students will enjoy a day away from school on Tuesday, November 1 while their teachers, assistant teachers and administrators make an educational field trip to DeSoto County.

Author and educational speaker Harry Wong will address educators Tuesday, November 1 at the DeSoto Civic Center.

Indicted town clerk testifies in Como election trial
By Jason C. Mattox

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Following an eight-hour jury selection process, a 12-person circuit jury was seated Thursday morning to begin hearing an election contest between the Town of Como’s alderman-at-large and his challenger from the June 7 general election.
Democrat John Walton, who is represented by Cleveland attorney Ellis Turnage, was certified as the winner by the Como election commission with 250 votes compared to independent challenger Dr. Forrester Ruhl’s 242 votes.

Ruhl is represented by Hernando attorney Richard Bowen.

During opening statements before Tupelo Judge Sharion Aycock in Sardis, Bowen called the election contest a "peculiar situation" for several reasons.

"This is a very peculiar type of trial in that it is one you don’t see very often," he said. "You, the members of the jury, will be asked to determine which of these two candidates received the most legal votes for the office of alderman-at-large for the Town of Como.

"This case is different, but it is just as important, if not more important, than a criminal trial," Bowen added. "Whoever you decide received the most votes will be the alderman-at-large for the town."

Bowen told jurors that if a vote was illegally cast, it not only affected the men seeking the office, but the entire election process.

"We believe that the total number of votes cast in the election was 492," he said. "Absentee votes are the only votes we are questioning."

Of the 492 votes cast during the election, 49 absentee votes were counted, although a total of 53 absentee ballots were cast in the election.

"Of the total number of absentee votes cast, we are only questioning 38 votes," he said. "Those are the absentee votes that were not cast in the registrar’s office."

Bowen explained that a person is allowed to vote absentee for a variety of reasons that would make it impossible for a voter to cast a "regular" ballot.

"If an elderly person is more than 65 years of age, or a person is temporarily or permanently disabled, he or she can request that an application for an absentee ballot be mailed to them," he explained. "In some cases, the voter can ask for assistance in voting if they are unable to complete the ballot on their own.

"The problems with absentee ballots come when the ballots are sent outside of the registrar’s office," Bowen continued.

Bowen explained that certain safeguards are in place on the back of the ballot envelope to ascertain that the vote it contains is that of the person to whom it was mailed.

"There are places on the ballot envelope that must be signed by the voter, a witness, and, in some circumstances, the person who provides voter assistance.

"When those safeguards are not met, there is no way of knowing for sure if the vote cast is the one wanted by the voter who requested the absentee ballot," Bowen added. "In some cases, like voter assistance, that person may have voted how they wanted to rather than the choice of the actual voter."

Turnage, in a much briefer opening statement, told the jury the only people who may vote out of the registrar’s office are the infirm or elderly.

"There is no allegation of fraud or wrong-doing at all," he said. "The question of this election boils down to whether the absentee votes are legal or not, and that is up to the members of the jury to decide."

The first witness to take the stand was Como Town Clerk Nedra Dandridge, who was indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit voter fraud and three counts of fraud by absentee balloting on Tuesday (See related story page A1).

Police Chief Cleve Gale was also indicted on similar charges.

Dandridge, as town clerk and registrar, is responsible for maintaining voter registration information and handling other duties associated with the election.

"I am responsible for having the ballots, both absentee and regular, printed," she said in courtroom testimony.

When asked about possible assistance with absentee voting by deputy clerks, Dandridge said she was the only one to handle the absentee voting, but added that she did not provide any voter assistance.

"There were 17 absentee voters who came into the office to cast ballots," she said. "Once they completed the application, they were given a ballot and placed in a private area to vote."

Dandridge said all a person had to do to receive an absentee ballot by mail was call in.

"Due to the time frame of the election, we mailed out the application, ballot and ballot envelope," she explained, making reference to the short time period between the primary runoff and the general election.

Dandridge’s testimony continued past noon, and several other witnesses were expected to take the stand during the remainder of a trial that could run for several days.

Two indicted for election fraud
By Billy Davis
and Jason C. Mattox

A state investigation into voter fraud in Como has led to the indictment of that city’s police chief and city clerk, and two other residents.

The attorney general’s office announced the indictments this week after Como Police Chief Cleve Gale and Como Town Clerk Nedra C. Dandridge were arrested Tuesday morning by the Panola County Sheriff’s Department.

The indictments came from a grand jury that had convened in Sardis on October 8 and 9. Attorney Lee Martin with the attorney general’s office presented evidence against the defendants.

Gale was indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit voter fraud and three counts of voter fraud by the use of absentee ballots.

Gale also serves as a county constable, an elected position.

Like Gale, Dandridge was indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit voter fraud and three counts of fraud by absentee balloting.

Dandridge was also indicted on a single count of voter fraud by a registrar.

"The voter fraud counts allege that Gale and Dandridge caused individuals to misrepresent their eligibility to vote by absentee ballot," said Jacob Ray, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office.

The single count against Dandridge, Ray said, stemmed from allegations that she allowed a voter to sign a false affidavit.

The maximum penalty for each offense is five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Gale and Dandridge were arrested and booked by Panola Under Sheriff James Rudd, the arrest log indicated.

Panola County Chief Deputy Craig Sheley said the sheriff’s office was asked by the state attorney general’s office to serve the indictments.
"That was the only role we played in the investigation," Sheley said.

Two Como residents, Jessie M. Barnett and Raymond Boyce, were also indicted by the grand jury for bribery, and were arrested and booked Tuesday.

Barnett was indicted on two counts of bribery while Boyce was indicted on three counts of bribery, both for allegedly offering $5 to voters to influence their vote.

The maximum penalty for bribery is two years and a $1,000 fine.

The arrests on Tuesday came a day before a circuit trial was set to begin in Sardis over the controversial Como alderman-at-large election in May.

In the same municipal election, there are currently three contested elections in court. Judy Sumner has challenged Azria Lewers’ certification for mayor in Como. Josephine Cleveland has also challenged Ruby Higgenbottom’s victory in Ward Three.

Reached for comment, Lewers said he had no comment about whether he would ask Gale to step down as police chief.

"I’m still trying to feel my way through this, and until then I have no comment," said Lewers.

Morale, manpower on the mend at BPD
     Batesville DARE police officer Robert Ales teaches youngsters about the danger of strangers earlier this week at the Batesville Police Department.
By Billy Davis

The Batesville Police Department has bounced back stronger and better after enduring a manpower shortage last year and a testy election earlier this summer, department leaders say.

While a shortage of patrol officers dogged the BPD last winter, the department’s slots for patrol officers were all filled until this week, said Police Chief Gerald Legge.

"We had every position filled until we learned that Sgt. Terry Smith is leaving us," said Legge, who was interviewed in his office Thursday along with Colonel Tony Jones and Major Don Province.

Smith is pursuing a contract security service job overseas, Legge said.

The Batesville Mayor and Board of Aldermen promoted Legge from assistant chief to chief following the May municipal election that saw Jerry Autrey elected as the new mayor.

Then-Police Chief Roger Vanlandingham had retired from the department shortly before the election, and upon his departure the future leadership of the department got mixed into political maneuvering.

Once the election was over, city officials promoted Legge to chief while Jones was promoted from major to colonel, or assistant chief. Province was promoted from captain.

The three department leaders combined have 73 years of law enforcement experience.

"During the election there was some uncertainty and a certain amount of stress," said Legge, "but we’re showing that you can pull together and move in one direction."

"We’re not singing ‘Kumbaya,’ but we’re getting along and working together," added Province. "The mood is a lot better around here than it was."

"From the feedback we’re getting from the public," Jones said, "people are hearing from our officers that this is an enjoyable place to work."

One morale booster was a $3,600 yearly raise requested by the department and granted by the mayor and board of aldermen. The raise kicked in October 1, the start of the fiscal year.

The raise pushed the starting salary of a non-certified BPD police officer to $24,584 and certified officer to $26,137.

The department trimmed its budget to afford the raises, Legge said, reducing the cost of the raises to the city from $200,000 to about $60,000 after making other cuts.

"We went line by line and looked at everything," Legge said.

The police department had been plagued by officers leaving for better-paying jobs elsewhere, an issue that cropped up during the municipal race, but now the doors to the department are swinging the other way, the department brass agreed.

"We’re able to look at two good applicants and choose the better of the two, Province said. "Before we would have picked both because we had two openings and were playing catchup."

"I hope the citizens understand that the raise is money well spent because it creates stability in the department," Jones added.

Partnership leaders see potential, hard work, in county’s economic future
By Billy Davis

When Sonny Simmons landed the CEO job at Panola Partnership in mid-August, he arrived in the middle of coming changes in the land "where the Delta meets the hills."

The mayor’s office in Batesville was under new leadership for the first time in three decades, and Sardis voters had elected a new mayor as well.

The South Panola school board had hired a new superintendent, who in turn hired a new high school principal, and both were given marching orders to improve academics. A sheriff’s race was just picking up steam.

While Simmons understood the history taking place when he arrived here two months ago, he hopes Panolians understand the future that’s coming.

Most importantly, Simmons believes, Panola County is poised to attract the "trickle down" effect of commerce and industry now jostling for building space in DeSoto County.

Years have passed since those industries flooded DeSoto, he said, and the room to build there is running short. The next stop further south is obviously Tate County, but industries are looking father south to Panola.

"Tate County has an industrial park, but they don’t have a lot of highly developable land because a lot of the land is low-lying along the interstate," said Simmons.

That means Panola County is the next logical stop in the southern migration, Simmons believes, and the preparation to welcome new business and industry should be happening right now.

Is Panola County ready?

‘We’re not there yet’
"We’re ready for smaller industries but the larger ones – we’re not there yet," said Partnership member Leonard Morris. "We’re ready for maybe a 500 (employee) industry maximum, and that’s about it."

Morris has a unique understanding of the Partnership after serving twice as interim director while the board of directors searched for a new hire.

During the most recent search that produced Simmons, Morris said he saw firsthand how industrial prospects view the Panola community – and also how Panola views them.

"I’ve think we’ve become complacent that the industries will come just because we’re here. That’s just not the case anymore," Morris said. "They don’t come anymore because of cheap labor. They come because of quality of life, such as housing, education and recreation, and incentives from us."

Industries lead job market
Panola County’s industries lead the job market here with 24.8 percent of the job force, according to 2000 figures from the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), the state’s economic development agency.

Among the county’s industries, the most recent new job growth came from Batesville Casket, which announced in May that it is relocating about 200 jobs from a New Hampshire plant.

Twenty Batesville Casket jobs have been added so far as part of the job relocation, said Ken Waldrip, technical services manager for the company.

"The relocation is about 30 percent complete, and we have 60 to 80 new jobs to go," Waldrip said this week.

Panola County’s unemployment rate was 7.5 percent in September, down from double-digit numbers during the fall of 2004.

County infrastructure
a strength

Simmons came to Batesville from the Mississippi Development Authority, where he recruited industries in the Business and Trade Division. He also brought political experience after serving as mayor and alderman in Winona.

While Simmons cautions that he is still learning about the county, he can list the strengths and weaknesses he has since discovered.

The strengths? Available infrastructure such as water/sewer, natural gas, and telecommunications.
The weaknesses? Too few industrial buildings to offer prospects.

The ideal plan, Simmons said, would be to construct an 80,000-square-foot "spec" building for industrial prospects to view.

CEO job a ‘juggling act’
Though unnamed by Simmons, still another weakness could be Panola County’s approach to economic development, namely the challenge of the Partnership to perform its job and an apparent lack of long-range goals.

Panola Partnership is an umbrella operation that encompasses the chamber of commerce, industrial recruitment and retainment, and the Main Street Program that aids development on the Batesville Square.

Simmons oversees the Partnership’s daily operation, aided by office manager and Main Street manager Colleen Clark, and assistant office manager Gloria Westbrook.

Brad Robison, the Partnership president for 2005-2006, believes Simmons’ experience and connections at the state level and political understanding make him a lucky catch for the Partnership. Allowing him to utilize his talents, however, remains a challenge since his job is so demanding.

"How do you capitalize on Sonny’s experience when he is staying completely swamped with all the hats he’s wearing?" said Robison. "He’s got a pretty good juggling act."

"In that job Sonny’s sure got to manage his time fairly well," said Morris of the demanding job. "The truth is that you need more help to do what’s got to be done if you want to see success."
Vision plan needs restart

Regarding a long-range plan for Panola, Robison said the idea was in its first phases under former Partnership CEO Blair Jernigan.

Jernigan, who took a job with the Delta Regional Authority in Clarksdale, had been vocal about the need for a long-range plan, often adding that the Partnership CEO was just one piece of a larger puzzle.

"The process had been started under Blair, and now that we’ve got Sonny, we haven’t gotten back together as a board and brainstormed about where we need to go," Robison said.

"We need to go off somewhere on a Saturday afternoon and that’s all you do – have a planning strategy," Robison continued. "But it can’t be a plan of the Partnership board. It can’t be just what the Partnership says is the plan for Panola County."



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