Madison County hires Hall as PR consultant during heated discussion

By NIKKI ROWELL,

He’s back. Heath Hall is making another appearance as the face of the Madison County board of supervisors.

The Madison County board of supervisors has voted to hire Heath Hall, president of Strategic Marketing Group (SMG) and public relations consultant, to cover public relations for the county. This is the third time Hall has been hired by county supervisors since 2013.

District Three Supervisor Gerald Steen presented the proposal for hiring Hall at the July 1 meeting of the board.

“This is something I have always asked for,” Steen said, as he handed out the proposal asking for a public relations professional to be hired for the county.

Hall has previously worked on Steen’s political campaign.

The contract includes a monthly $2,500 payment, which will likely come from the county general fund, according to District Two Supervisor Trey Baxter.

The contract began July 1 and will run through December 31. At that time, the decision to renew the contract will go before the board.

“We need one person to speak for the county and get out the proper information,” Steen said of why he feels the hire is necessary. “This person already works for the Sheriff’s Department. They can speak on behalf of the kind of work he does.”

“So often you see information out there that is so wrong, and it comes from some of the supervisors. Intentionally put out. It really needs to be put out by the county,” Steen added.

In response to Steen’s suggestion that hiring Hall would clear up the spread of false information, District Two Supervisor Trey Baxter asked, “Is this the same Heath Hall that was fired from Federal Railroad for falsifying a federal employment document?”

According to a POLITICO report, before accepting a position with Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Hall signed a document saying his firm would remain “dormant.” Hall did resign from the FRA after reports were published showing he was still receiving payment from the Madison County Sheriff’s Department at the same time as working for FRA.

According to the SMG website, it is a full-service public relations firm that specializes in general public relations, crisis public relations, media maximization, government affairs, fundraising and political campaigns.

Outside of SMG and FRA, Hall’s resume shows an extensive public relations background, including serving as vice president of external affairs and development at the Mississippi Technology Alliance, helping start Communication Information Technology organization of Mississippi, serving as Governor Kirk Fordice’s director of public affairs, among other things.

“As far as I know, supervisors are elected by the people to talk to the people, and I don’t need anybody talking for me,” Baxter said at the meeting.

“We don’t need a mouthpiece at the county level,” Baxter told the Sun. “We could take that $2,500 a month and put it toward fixing potholes and paving streets.”

The board voted to hire Hall with a 3-2 vote, with Baxter and District One Supervisor Sheila Jones voting no and Steen, District Four Supervisor David Bishop and District Five Supervisor Paul Griffin voting yes.

“I don’t need anybody talking for me either, and I approved it,” Griffin said.

“I seconded it for the reason of transparency,” Bishop said. “I’ll be honest with you, for the last three years, we haven’t had complete transparency. Having a PR firm to relay information on social media and every other avenue would be advantageous.”

Jones pointed out that Hall has also served previously as a campaign manager for Steen.

“I think Heath Hall is also a campaign manager for at least one person on this board, maybe the one who made the motion,” Jones said.

There has previously been debate on whether hiring Hall is a conflict of interest and unethical.

Steen did not respond to Jones’ comment and went on to say that he feels Hall will help the board spread positive information about the county.

“It’s good for the county, because we have a lot of good things happening in the county, we just need to get it out,” he said.

Other counties in Mississippi are exploring the option of hiring a public relations consultant to represent them, including Desoto County.

Desoto County board of supervisor president and District Two Supervisor Mark Gardner said they have hired a public relations consultant twice in the past, but do not currently employ one.

“We certainly need one,” Gardner said. “We have hired two before, and it didn’t work out. Shame on us for hiring the wrong person.

Gardner said they do hope to budget for a public relations consultant either on a part-time basis or combined with an existing position.

According to previous Sun reports, Hall was last hired by Madison County in 2016, with a contract set to expire October 2016.

The Sun reported that the county issued only five press releases during Hall’s previous stint working for the board.

Before his previous contract expired, he was making more. He was being paid $3,300 per month, or $39,600 per year, for press releases and to manage a Facebook page.

He was also hired by the county in March 2013, but his contract was later terminated.

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