Playground company suing Sardis mayor, board over unpaid invoice

Published 10:39 am Thursday, May 20, 2021

A Florida company has filed suit in Panola County Chancery Court seeking payment for an outstanding invoice the Town of Sardis owes for playground equipment installed in a city park.

Town aldermen have refused to pay the invoice for more than a year because they never authorized the purchase.  Further, they allege Mayor Lula Palmer created a fake purchase order for the purchase and submitted it to the plaintiff without the board’s knowledge or approval.

BYO Recreation, LLC, made claim against Sardis and Mayor Palmer in paperwork filed May 6. BYO is asking $31,744.80 plus interest and the expense of bringing the suit to court.

The Board of Aldermen will likely now sue its Mayor, seeking to remove the Town of Sardis as a whole from the demands made by Florida company. The matter has been an on-and-off topic of regular and special board meetings in the town since last spring with the town’s leaders at odds over the playground equipment charges.

A timeline of the highlights and background leading to the lawsuit follows:

  • Sardis aldermen were surprised in February 2020 to see playground equipment being installed at the Sardis Walking Trail area, a new park created with state and federal grants on Hwy. 51, in a large open area at the entrance to the Green Hill subdivision and elementary school.
  • The Walking Trail was a project Mayor Palmer had initiated and pursued for the community. The Board of Supervisors also committed  some material and labor to the project to help Sardis get the track completed. The quarter-mile asphalt trail has been popular with citizens who use it daily.
  • Mayor Palmer also pushed for installation of playground equipment beginning in 2019, but aldermen repeatedly said no, promising the mayor the park would see future upgrades, including playground equipment, as the town’s budget would allow.  Aldermen also hoped for additional grants for park project in coming fiscal years.
  • Aldermen questioned the Mayor about the playground in meetings held March and April of last year. Palmer told board members she was given the go-ahead to choose and purchase the equipment, but neither the city clerk nor the board’s attorney could find a record of a motion or votes authorizing her to proceed with the project.
  • At the June meeting when aldermen were presented the town’s claims docket for approval, they voted to withhold one line item – an invoice for almost $32,000 to BYO, Inc., for the playground equipment. State law strictly forbids the spending of taxpayers’ money in that amount without a bid process, or the presentation of comparable quotes.
  • Aldermen were incensed that Palmer ordered the equipment without board approval, understanding that when future audits found the illegal purchase the five aldermen would be required to pay back the funds. Board members also questioned whether the equipment installed was worth $32,000. Several members said the town could have gotten a better playground in competitive bidding rules were followed.
  • Further complicating the matter, employees of the City Clerk’s office told board members they were unable to account for a missing purchase order number from the town’s book. The board was told that Palmer asked for a purchase order form and was given No. 746 from the book, telling them it was PPE supplies for the Police Department, and she would provide the name of the vendor later. Because the pandemic was raging and PPE supplies were scarce and had to be purchased quickly when available, deputy clerks thought little about the unusual request to issue a purchase order without a vendor name – generally something clerks would never allow.
  • When pressed for a vendor name, Palmer was evasive until finally asking them to include P.O. #746 as a line item for the May claims docket. It was then, aldermen could see the mayor intended to have the playground equipment paid for from the town’s general fund. Vice Mayor Michael Price told The Panolian at the time he voted against paying the invoice because “the last thing we need is for (State Auditor) Shad White to show up with his hand out and looking at us five aldermen.”
  • The suit filed this month includes an attachment, Exhibit A, which is a purchase order – with the number 746 – for the equipment and installation at 420 Hwy. 51, the site of the walking trail. The purchase order form does not match other purchase order’s regularly issued by the Town of Sardis. Exhibit A appears to have been created from a common template from software on most computers, and readily available on the internet.
  • Employees of the City Clerk’s office have told aldermen they did not make the invoice, and that it did not originate in their office. It is signed by Mayor Palmer and dated March 30, 2020. Palmer told aldermen she did not create the invoice, she simply signed one BYO, Inc., sent her. She offered no explanation why she didn’t present the invoice to the board before signing, nor why it is not a standard Sardis purchase order. BYO employees said they did not send Palmer a purchase order, only invoice for their goods and services provided.
  • In the suit, BYO states: “Ms. Palmer at all times represented herself to be the mayor of the City of Sardis, Mississippi, and held herself out as having express or apparent authority to enter into the purchase order with BYO.”
  • Mayor Palmer and the Town of Sardis are required to respond to the charge within 30 days of the delivery of the summons or a judgement by default will be entered. Because state law expressly forbids the aldermen from approving payment of the invoice (at which time they would become individually responsible for the misspent funds) the most likely scenario will be the aldermen suing Palmer, demanding she pay the invoice from her own funds, not the town’s.
  • Elected officials are usually bonded with policies for such matters, and in the end the mayor’s bonding company (assuming the premium has been paid) will eventually pay the bill and the interests and fees associated with it.
  • The timing of the lawsuit could hardly be worse for Mayor Palmer who is currently campaigning for re-election. Her challenger, Richard McCarty, is a sitting board member in the town.