Hinds County's redistricting woes are not over, yet. One week after the county Board of Supervisors voted to approve new district maps, the board faces a possible lawsuit over its decision to hire Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson to oversee its redistricting process. Hinds County Republican Party Chairman Pete Perry told supervisors at their March 7 board meeting that he plans to sue the county if they do not void Johnson's contract.
Perry was in the crowd of more than 100 that packed a Feb. 28 hearing to protest the district maps Johnson drew. He said that he objects to the map that supervisors approved at the end of that hearing and expects to join another lawsuit challenging it soon.
His suit over Johnson's contract could come as soon as this week. Perry told supervisors that he believed Johnson's $40,000 contract was improper because the county did not solicit bids for the contract. State law allows counties to forego a bid process for "professional services," but Perry argued that Johnson's redistricting work did not qualify for the professional services exemption.
Section 19-3-69 of the Mississippi Code allows counties to contract with accountants, engineers, physicians, appraisers, architects and attorneys, among other professions, without soliciting bids. Perry pointed out that Johnson, who has a law degree, could not qualify for the exemption as an attorney because the Mississippi Bar has not licensed him. The Mississippi Bar confirmed that Johnson is not licensed in Mississippi.
With his wife, Letitia, who is licensed by the state bar, Johnson operates the consulting firm D.L. Johnson, LLC. His NAACP role is a volunteer position and unpaid.
Supervisors voted to contract with D.L. Johnson, LLC, according to minutes from the board's Dec. 20, 2010, meeting. Still, Perry maintained that having an attorney on staff was not enough to qualify Johnson's firm for the professional-services exemption. State law also requires boards of supervisors to publish a finding that professional services are necessary in their minutes. Perry said that the board's minutes from Dec. 20, when it approved Johnson's contract, did not mention any finding of necessity.
Board attorney Crystal Martin said that she had not justified Johnson's hiring by referring to his qualifications as an attorney, but she did not offer another justification.
Johnson declined to address Perry's allegations directly but pointed out that, with his help, Hinds County approved its new district lines well before neighboring counties.
"Fortunately we were able to do it within the very short time allowed as a result of the late date for the release of the census data and the qualifying deadline for candidates in Hinds County," Johnson told the Jackson Free Press.
Madison County has not finished its redistricting process, County Administrator Brad Sellers said. The county Board of Supervisors hired the Central Mississippi Planning and Development District to develop its redistricting maps. Sellers said that the board contracted directly with CMPDD, citing the professional-services exemption. Minutes from the board's June 21, 2010, meeting, when supervisors approved the CMPDD contract, do not show a finding that professional services were necessary, as Perry alleged state law requires.
At Monday's meeting, Martin asked that she be given time to look into Perry's allegations, at one point cutting him off to say: "The request is well taken. I would like an opportunity to investigate."
Perry told the JFP that he does not expect Martin's investigation to turn up anything and that he plans to file a lawsuit later this week. The Belhaven resident is the chairman of the Hinds County Republican Party and owns lobbying firm Paradigm Government Relations. He has been a registered lobbyist in Mississippi; however, Perry said that the county's redistricting process does not affect any of his current clients.
Johnson's contract has been the subject of criticism for weeks, with critics comparing it to cheaper contracts the Central Mississippi Planning and Development District has entered with other counties.
"Let's assume that we had hired CMPDD," Hinds Board President George Smith told Perry. "What's the difference?"
Perry replied that he was not asking the board to hire CMPDD instead.
"I'm not questioning your ability to award a contract; it's about how you award the contract," Perry said.