Columbia Mayor Justin McKenzie says neither he nor Police Chief Michael Kelly are aware of any investigation pending against an officer hired this week who resigned from the Forrest County Sheriff’s Office earlier this year.
Aldermen split 2-2 Tuesday in a vote to employ Joshua Strickland, based on a recommendation from Kelly, and McKenzie broke the tie in favor of the hire.
The Hattiesburg American reported that then-Forrest County Deputy Chey Sumrall was the driver of a sheriff’s office vehicle on Jan. 26 that hit a car in Hattiesburg, killing two people, and that Strickland was in another vehicle. Those killed were driver Charlie Epting, 66, and passenger Annie Everette, 80, both of Hattiesburg.
The sheriff’s office said then that Sumrall was on duty at the time but not involved in a pursuit. The Hattiesburg Police Department and Mississippi Highway Patrol were investigating the wreck. Sumrall and Strickland were both initially placed on administrative leave pending the investigation and later resigned from the sheriff’s office.
Ryan Moore, a spokesman for Hattiesburg police, said Thursday that the wreck is still under investigation and that he could not give any other details on an active investigation. It’s not clear if Strickland is part of that investigation since he was not driving a vehicle involved in the wreck, and investigators have not detailed what his alleged role, if any, was.
On Tuesday, Kelly approached aldermen with a request to hire Strickland as a full-time officer to replace Jeffery Stamps, who has gone to part-time. Aldermen Mike Smith and Jason Stringer voted for the hire, and Alderwoman Anna Evans and Alderman Wendell Hammond voted against. Alderman Edward Hough was absent. McKenzie broke the tie by voting in the affirmative.
Kelly also requested the hire of Wanda Thrash part-time for patrol. Again Smith and Stringer voted for the hire, and Evans and Hammond voted against it. McKenzie voted for the hire, breaking the tie.
There was no debate during the meeting regarding those votes. Kelly, Hammond and Evans could not be reached for comment via phone in the days after the meeting. McKenzie said he was not sure why Hammond and Evans opposed the hires.
McKenzie acknowledged Thursday seeing a social media post about the Hattiesburg wreck but said they were not aware of any investigation pending against Strickland. The mayor said applicants for the police department go through thorough background checks to ensure any officer hired with the police department has a clean record.
In other business Tuesday, City Engineer Sean Burns addressed the board. In his report, he stated the rubbish pit is about 75 percent complete at the transfer station in Foxworth. The request to close the rubbish pit by the airport has been submitted to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality for approval.
Natural Resource Conservation Service projects including Conner Avenue, Rest Haven Cemetery and Lumberton Road were awarded to ECW out of Louisiana and are estimated to begin within the next four weeks, Burns said.
Burns also said the sewer project at the courthouse is now completed and recommended the final payment of $7,345 be made.
McKenzie asked Burns about the erosion on the north end of the bridge on North Main Avenue. Burns said repairs on the bride would have to come from local funds. Burns estimated the cost of the repairs would be $25,000 to $30,000.
The sales tax report was presented and it was down 2.4 percent from this time last year but it was higher than two years ago.
McKenzie expressed his pleasure at how well the draining worked this past weekend while Tropical Storm Barry moved over Columbia.
Smith discussed with the board about getting storm sirens for Ward 4 and maybe go closer to Ward 3. McKenzie advised there was one on West Avenue. McKenzie also said he would like to see ones near the Expo Center close to Wiggins Avenue and on Evergreen Street near the fire station.
The next board meeting will be Aug. 6. n