Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn, right, speaks with Ward 3 Alderman David Little during a board of aldermen meeting in this Dispatch file photo. Photo by: Dispatch file photo
May 8, 2014 10:19:46 AM
A Freedom of Information Act request by The Dispatch shows Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn sent an email from a private account setting up board business, an act that partially ties into a recent Open Meetings Act complaint alleging aldermen tend to city business outside the public's view.
The Dispatch issued a FOIA for copies of emails between aldermen last year after Wynn and Ward 3 Alderman David Little stumped for a legislative review of the city's sidewalk and street ordinances, rules, they said, stifle economic development.
From a private email address -- firstname.lastname@example.org, --Wynn acted in her official capacity as an alderman by notifying the rest of the board that she would add a comprehensive review request to board business at the upcoming meeting. She detailed her upcoming actions by saying she would express her concerns over the rules in the form of a merit and then motion to task former then-Community Development Director William Snowden with handling the review and presenting his findings in November.
Wynn signed the email by tagging her name with "(A2)," or Ward 2 alderman.
An ethics complaint against Starkville alleges aldermen repeatedly violated the Open Meetings Act by participating in secret meetings and seeks a full state investigation into a pattern that dates to July 1 when the board took office.
The complaint specifically highlights a comment Wynn made during February's Starkville School District Board of Trustees appointment, an act which drew sharp public criticism over the board's handling, as an indicator that aldermen are tending to business outside of the public's purview.
"Sometimes as board members, we have to make decisions behind the scenes that some of you may not understand, and they are quite difficult. Tonight was one of those," Wynn said on Feb. 18.
Aldermen went behind closed doors Tuesday and acknowledged the ethics complaint. Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman acknowledged the city's Monday receipt on Wednesday.
A second ethics complaint stemming from the school board appointment was filed against Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn. He cast a vote in the school board appointment after the Miss. Ethics Commission warned him in 2010 to cease voting in school matters since he is related to an SSD employee.
Vaughn's 2009, 2010 and 2012 statements of economic interest (SEI), a state-mandated document summarizing candidates' and elected officials' finances, lists two additional household members besides the Ward 7 alderman. The 2010 and 2012 statements say those two -- a spouse and another household member -- both earned at least $1,000 in the preceding calendar year from Starkville public schools. The 2009 report did not list any other household members' income source, and a 2011 report was missing from the Miss. Ethics Commission's website.
After Vaughn's February school board vote, he told The Dispatch that his daughter works for the school system. He participated in the vote, he said, because she does not live with him. Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker and Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard recused themselves from the vote in question because Walker's wife is tied to the school system, as is Maynard's son. Maynard confirmed his son does not live with him after the vote.
Even before assuming office July 1, Wynn, the self-described "shake-it-up" politician, has been no stranger to controversy.
In a 2011 paid, front-page announcement in Starkville Daily News, then Oktibbeha County tax assessor candidate Wynn claimed to have a master's degree in "teaching English" from Mississippi University for Women.
Last year, MUW officials could not confirm that Wynn received a master's degree from the university. The Dispatch reached out to MUW Wednesday to corroborate her claim, and again a university official said the school has no record of such an award.
Wynn's 2010 statement of economic interest says she graduated from Mississippi State University and says she last attended MUW. Her subsequent 2012 SEI did not list any supplemental educational information, and her 2013 statement, which was submitted April 21, cannot be viewed by the public since it is under review by the Miss. Ethics Commission, according to the website.
Wynn and former Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk squared off for a May 7 primary battle that fell well behind schedule due to a protracted legal battle over election irregularities and affidavit counts. Both finally tied at 181 votes, forcing a runoff. Wynn would secure her seat with by 217-191 vote margin.
In June, photos surfaced placing Wynn and other Democratic aldermen-elects and a party executive committee member at Republican mayoral candidate Dan Moreland's last major fundraiser before the month's municipal election, an event in which state-level GOP members stumped for Moreland.
Massive fallout in the Democratic Party followed, as two executive committee members were removed from their positions.
The Moreland campaign issued a statement after the election saying elected city leaders were invited to meet politicians, including Gov. Phil Bryant, as part of their duties and to develop relationships with state-level representatives. However, then Alderman-elect Walker, a Democrat, previously told The Dispatch he was not invited to the event.
The Dispatch received reports of his challenger's presence at the event, another Democrat, but could not fully corroborate the claims.
The Dispatch also received numerous reports that Wynn was sighted on the campaign trail with at least one Starkville Tea Party member before the Ward 2 primary and subsequent run-off election, but those allegations could not be substantiated as reporters did not observe the pair campaigning together.
STP Chairman Jane Vemer told The Dispatch in an interview prior to Ward 2's primary that the group was not officially supporting one candidate in that race, but individual members had the freedom to back whomever they chose.
Two Dispatch reporters did Observe Wynn and Vaughn walking with two Moreland campaigners in Chandler Park, a Ward 7 housing community, before the mayoral election. When asked what they were doing, neither said they were actively campaigning for the Republican.
The Dispatch asked to see campaign material, which was observed as having signage endorsing Moreland, but one campaigner declined the newspaper's request.
At the time, Vaughn told The Dispatch he was out checking on his ward, while Wynn casually said they were "just goofing off."
Campaign financing issues were also raised during Wynn's Ward 2 run.
A county resident said Wynn told him that the Moreland campaign helped finance her run for city office.
The Dispatch granted this source anonymity because he feared retribution against his business by local Republicans for coming out with the information.
When asked last year by The Dispatch if he helped fund Wynn's campaign, Moreland and his campaign manager, Ricky Bishop, categorically denied the claim.
Wynn then said she does not discuss campaign financing or election strategy.
Moreland's campaign financing report did not list Wynn's name on his itemized disbursement list, but candidates are not required to print identities associated with donations or expenses totaling less than $200.
One post-election report filed by Wynn stated she spent $650 on her entire campaign, a figure well short of first-time candidates last election cycle, and did not receive any donations for the runoff election.
She originally filed two pre-primary reports with the city before the May 7 election. An April 30 report, which was both stamped "received" by the city and signed by her that same day, claimed she received and spent $200 in non-itemized transactions. Another report received May 1 by the city was dated April 29 by Wynn. That report showed she received $750 in contributions, $150 of which was itemized, and spent the same amount in that time period.
Dispatch records requests at the time revealed itemized spending lists were not submitted by Wynn.
Her 2012 SEI did not list any businesses in which she receives more than $2,500 per year in income, owns 10 percent or $5,000 stake, or where she is employed. It did, however, state Wynn received in excess of $1,000 in compensation from the Department of Human Services.
Sistrunk reported self-funding her campaign throughout the entire election cycle. One submitted stated she collected and spent $884.06. Early in the campaign, Sistrunk said she would re-use election signs used in her first campaign.
In comparison, first-time candidate David Little received more than $3,000 and spent at least $1,800 to unseat then-incumbent Eric Parker in Ward 3's GOP primary, which was the highest-grossing ward battle in terms of campaign contributions.
Former Ward 6 candidate Lerin Pruitt, another first-time candidate, raised more than $2,000 and spent at least $3,500 in his race against Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins.
Walker received almost $2,000 and spent at least $1,200 in his first ward race against candidate John Gaskin.
The new board took over on July 1 and fireworks quickly followed. Long-serving former Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill was fired from the job she held since the Dan Camp administration.
No reason was given for the termination beyond Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver's admission that he prayed about the situation.
Carver also said he was interested in hiring a candidate with economic development experience to fill the role, but the board eventually promoted then City Clerk and Finance Director Taylor Adams to the job.
Adams' promotion was one of many approved by the board: former Deputy City Clerk Lesa Hardin took over Adams' clerk position, while the new CAO continued his role as finance director; Starkville Police Department Capt. Frank Nichols was promoted to police chief after aldermen first placed former Chief David Lindley on administrative leave, then accepted his letter of retirement; former City Planner Buddy Sanders became Starkville's second community development director after his former boss, Snowden, resigned last year due to health-related reasons.
Wynn supported Carver's motion to non-renew Spruill and each subsequent city hire.
Public comments at board meetings turned to sharp criticisms during the Spruill ousting and subsequent hiring processes for vacant department head positions. Residents were critical at the board's lack of transparency and how it followed minimum standards for job searches.
Commenters also vocally protested a policy restricting public access to cellphones during board meetings, a rule change introduced by Perkins. His motion, supported by Wynn, was defeated, and the board then codified a less-stringent compromise motioned by Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard.
Since July 1, Wynn has engaged in one-on-one confrontations from the board table with members of the public. Sistrunk, a now-constant figure and commenter at board meetings, and Wynn have both participated in back-and-forth rows on numerous occasions.
Mary Lee Beal, a former long-serving alderman and Democratic mayoral candidate, verbally sparred with Wynn in January after blasting the board over its narrow police search and the Ward 2 alderman's perceived lack of knowledge on the city's sidewalk-required district.
Beal left that board meeting before Vaughn lashed out at public criticism, saying negative comments and commenters are "a disgrace in the sight of God." After his speech, Wynn referred to a silent majority of supporters who backed the board's actions and stances.
Quasi-public officials also drew Wynn's fire last year. The alderman used a board meeting to publicly attack Greater Starkville Development Partnership CEO Jennifer Gregory by accusing her of using the Partnership to promote her own personal opinions.
Gregory previously submitted a letter stating the GSDP Executive Committee supported a compromise by Walker that would create a transparent, community-involved ordinance review committee for landscaping, sidewalk and other issues.
Wynn said she was "informed that these were not the official views" of the board by GSDP Executive Board Chairman Richard Hilton and that Gregory should "not use her title in the Partnership to convey her opinion on Partnership letterhead to this board."
When contacted by The Dispatch after the meeting, Hilton said his board was "emphatically in favor of a non-partisan approach to looking at ordinances" and that he supported Gregory's letter and action.
Wynn stuck to her original message after Gregory defended her actions -- Gregory was not in attendance when the criticism began but rushed to City Hall when alerted of the dialogue through social media -- saying the letter was "not the official opinion of the executive council" and refused to apologize.
"If Mr. Hilton will issue me a statement citing that, I will be more than happy to 'woman-up' and apologize to you and the Partnership, but until then my letter than I read tonight will still stand," Wynn said in November. It is believed no such apology came in the months after the incident.
"I believe in my heart that we're not a business-as-usual board," Wynn said in January. "We shook it up. We need to keep going. Guess what? I'm on the ship, and I'll be here until 2017. Who knows, I might decide to run again. We'll see."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch