Mayor, board at odds over Gridiron spending

Published 2:08 am Wednesday, July 26, 2023

The murky details of the money spent on last month’s Legends of the Gridiron are a little clearer this week as invoices have now been made public, and the Batesville aldermen have taken measures to distance themselves from Mayor Hal Ferrell’s handling of the event.

Board members, as expected, last week rescinded and revised previous decisions to pay invoices and the personal credit card charges made by Ferrell shortly before the June 24 event, without the board’s consent or knowledge.

Alderman-at-Large and Vice Mayor Teddy Morrow said aldermen changed their votes when more information was learned, and when they realized that reported contributions did not match what Ferrell originally reported.

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Alderman Stan Harrison said his mind was changed after consultations with the city’s legal counsel and auditing firm.

Smith Phillips Mitchell and Scott have long represented the city with partner Colmon Mitchell generally serving as the city attorney, although Ryan Revere occasionally attends board meetings and is involved in legal matters on behalf of the city. City auditors are from Jones & Jones CPA of Booneville.

“On the advice of the attorneys and the auditors we decided to go back to our original agreement when we voted to allow the mayor to spend up to five thousand dollars for the football event,” Harrison said. “When he came to us with his credit card charges and wanting us to pay I knew it would protect the whole board to take another look at what had happened.”

It was the second look that stirred the board members to rescind any approval of additional funding. Morrow, who made the first motion on June 6 to allow the mayor to spend five thousand, said it soon became apparent why Ferrell was hesitant to tell board members what the charges were when he asked to have his personal charges covered.

“We still don’t know what these retailers and vendors were told or why the mayor spent money we didn’t approve,” Morrow said. “The City of Batesville pays its bills and we will not let one penny go unpaid out of this whole situation, but what happened here is not what people expect of their mayor. He purposely misrepresented the board’s decisions to the public and he kept everything hidden from the board until after it was too late for us to do things the right and legal way.”

Aldermen voted 5-0 on each of the motions presented, an indication they individually had arrived at the same conclusion when hearing advice from attorneys and auditors.

Before last Tuesday’s meeting Ferrell told The Panolian he was sorry the board members misunderstood his intentions and he would abide by their decision. 

He said he would pay the credit card charges – a number between $2,500 and $4,000 depending on which invoices are counted – in a scenario that would have the city clerk’s office issue the mayor a check for all contribution money received above the agreed upon $5,000 and an additional $2,585.11 for a speaker system rental.

What those contributions are and where invoices originated are at the heart of the matter. Officially, the city collected $1,600 in donations from five businesses – Dunlap & Kyle, State Farm, Planters Bank, First Security Bank, and Cadence Bank.

Additionally, Ferrell asked citizens via Facebook to help cover the expenses, raising $2,800 in pledges from the community. Through a local citizen, Ferrell told the social media audience the city had come up short for the Gridiron funding, asking for contributions of $100 per person. That money will also go to the mayor in the form of a check because the great majority of the expenses were put on his credit card.

“This is just not the way to run city business, and the mayor knows that,” Morrow said. “He is a successful businessman and he knows that elected officials can not spend money without board approval. This is why we have elected boards in the city and county, so one person can not decide to spend outrageous amounts of money on something he is attached to.”

The mayor’s invoices totaled $11,932.11, a total that was offset by payments made to some vendors by a private committee consisting of local citizens who organized the event they named Legends of the Gridiron. 

In an effort to recognize the success of the South Panola High School football program over the last four decades, including the fan base, support staff, and coaching staffs that propelled dozens of players to college scholarships and some to professional careers, the committee met regularly during the spring and also raised funds.

A program at the event listed several patrons, and some, when contacted by the newspaper this week, said their checks were made out to individuals on that committee and endorsed by the same. As a private endeavor, the board has no oversight over those contributions or the expenses paid by the committee.

Some of the charges turned in by the mayor were paid by the committee, according to Shalonda Ford, the main organizer. She said Taylor Grocery Catering was paid from donations and set for the event, but was contacted by Ferrell to add $635 more in food and drinks. Honorees for the night were served buffet style chicken and barbecue with tea, soft drinks and beer. The food and drinks amounted to $1,903.25.

Ford told The Panolian on Monday that she was asked to come to a meeting of the board by Morrow to coordinate the expenses and the contributions, but Ferrell called her the day of the meeting to say it was “best if I didn’t show up.” 

Ferrell said he could get the board’s cooperation easier if they didn’t know she was planning the event and collecting sponsorships, according to Ford. “Teddy told me the other board members wanted to hear what we had planned up that point, but then Mr. Hal said don’t come,” she said.

Ford said the bill for the catering was paid for by Belk Ford, Oxford Toyota, Panola Partnership, and Justin and Denise Pope. Many of the patrons that paid for trophies, awards, medals, and other auxiliary items made their checks payable directly to the vendors, and not committee members, Ford said.

Beside the bill for the catering, which Ford said she has a receipt for and the mayor listed as a city expense, aldermen were also upset with the invoice from Magnolia Rental for $2,485.85 for rental of tables and chairs. 

“This is purely a waste of money,” Harrison said. “We have a thousand chairs at the Civic Center and plenty of tables. For some reason this mayor just decided to order three hundred more chairs without taking any bids or mentioning one thing to aldermen. It just looks suspicious to do that and then use Facebook to lie to the public and tell them we came up short to get people to send him a hundred dollars each.”

Another invoice questioned by the board is an electronic payment charged to Ferrell’s account for $1,237.50 to Vancellis King Printing with the shipping address to his home address.

“We’ve never had a mayor that tried to hide so much from us,” Harrison said. “I don’t know what we spent twelve hundred dollars at a printing company for and I sure don’t know why we would be sending it to the mayor’s house.”

The Mayor and Board of Aldermen are scheduled to meet next Tuesday, Aug. 1, at 2 p.m. at City Hall. As of presstime, the city clerk’s office had not made public an agenda for that meeting. Agendas are generally emailed to the newspaper, department heads, and elected officials on Friday before a Tuesday meeting.