The Board of Supervisors is hiring a new spokesperson, despite a majority of its members saying they don’t believe it’s needed.

The motion to hire Ridgeland-based Strategic Marketing Group to handle “messaging” for the board passed by a 3-2 vote Monday, despite opposition from District 1 Supervisor Sheila Jones and Board President Trey Baxter and after District 5 Supervisor Paul Griffin — the swing vote — admitted he didn’t believe it was necessary.

Under the contract, the county will pay $2,500 each month for the remainder of 2019 to SMG and its proprietor Heath Hall, who is already under contract to handle public relations for the Madison County Sheriff’s Department.

Hall, a Madison resident, famously resigned from his position as acting director of the Federal Railways Administration last year after a Politico article accused him of moonlighting as a spokesman for the Sheriff after pledging on a federal ethics form that his public relations firm would remain dormant during his tenure.

Hall has previously denied those accusations and said he resigned instead to deal with a family emergency.

Board members were divided on the need for PR services.

District 3 Supervisor Gerald Steen, who presented the motion, argued the circulation of false or conflicting information in the community could be avoided if there were only one messenger.

“So often, you see information out there that is just so wrong,” Steen said. “It comes from the supervisors themselves, and it’s intentionally put out there.”

District 4 Supervisor David Bishop seconded the motion, which opened the floor for discussion.

Baxter, who represents District 2, started by asking rhetorically if Steen was referring to the same Heath Hall who “got fired” for falsifying federal employment documents and added, “The supervisors are elected by the people to speak for the people, and I don’t need anyone to speak for me.”

Griffin said he agreed, but defended the proposed hire anyway.

“I don’t need a person to talk for me either,” he responded. “Just like when I supported the hiring of a lobbyist, I didn’t need anyone lobbying for me. But some of my fellow board members seemed like they wanted to hire a lobbyist. I’m just here trying to help out my fellow board members.”

The motion passed moments later, with Griffin siding with Steen and Bishop to form the 3-2 majority.

After the vote, Steen continued to defend the contract.
“It’s just like hiring a lobbyist,” he said. “The lobbyist pays off, because we wouldn’t have gotten $8 million (for road projects) from the state without them working hard. The same members would say (the county) doesn’t need one.

“There’s a lot of good things going on in the county and we need to get the word out about it,” he added.

According to campaign finance reports, Hall has worked for years as a consultant for Steen himself, and in 2018, was paid $8,000 by Steen for services related to his political campaign.