Several Harrison County supervisors say they rejected a bid for a state legislator’s wife to be on the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport board because they are tired of nepotism and favoritism in county government.
They also fear House member Rep. Richard Bennett of Long Beach had a hand in ordering up a state investigative report on the county because his wife did not get the airport appointment.
Bennett said Tuesday in a telephone interview from the Capitol that he had nothing to do with requesting the report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, a standing nonpartisan committee of the Legislature known for delving into spending at state-supported entities.
Bennett and Supervisor Marlin Ladner acknowledge that Bennett’s wife, Tricia Bennett, was considered for a seat on the three-member airport board after longtime member Travis Lott of Long Beach died in July. But Bennett says his wife never knew she was considered and probably would not have accepted the appointment.
Both men say Tricia Bennnett, a retired school teacher and member of the Long Beach Board of Aldermen, was qualified to represent the county.
Supervisors Connie Rockco, Beverly Martin, Angel Kibler Middleton and Kent Jones, opposed the appointment. Ladner said he voted with the majority to appoint contractor and former gubernatorial candidate Dave Dennis to the seat after it became clear the other supervisors would not support Tricia Bennett.
All in the family
Richard Bennett’s stepfather is Marlin Ladner’s brother. Ladner says Bennett asked about his wife being appointed to the board, but Bennett says he was approached by Ladner about the possibility.
Rockco, Martin and Middleton said they want to end the practice of appointing relatives or people owed political favors to county boards.
Martin said Ladner already has enough relatives in county government. His granddaughter is a part-time county employee, the county road manager is married to his niece, a cousin serves on the planning commission and Gov. Phil Bryant appointed another Ladner niece to the Harrison County Development Commission.
“This good ol’ boy system needs to go,” said Martin, president of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors. “And I’m talking about putting qualified people on these boards, as opposed to relatives or people who are owed favors.
“For too long, we’ve had less qualified — and in a lot of cases unqualified individuals — placed in county employment or put on standing boards because of who they are related to. That undermines the quality and accountability of the appointed officials.”
Martin said Bennett approached her about appointing his wife shortly after Travis Lott passed away in July.
“(Bennett) said he would like for his wife Tricia to be appointed to the airport board and that he wanted my support,.” Martin said. “I told him I did not know her and I did not know what her qualifications were.
“I also pointed out that she was a member of the Long Beach Board of Aldermen and I thought it might be a conflict. So I made no commitment.”
Bennett denies he ever talked to Martin, but she says Bennett even chewed her out at the governor’s Cruisin’ The Coast reception at the White House Hotel in October because she failed to support the appointment.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to give another project to that airport,’” Martin said. “That set the stage for vindictiveness.” The PEER committee, with Bennett as its chairman, voted unanimously in November to look into Harrison County spending.
Bennett denies he had a conversation with Martin at the White House. “That is not true,” he said. “That is just not in my personality, period. The only one I talked to was Angel.”
Are supervisors ‘deflecting?’
Ladner asked Middleton if she would support Tricia Bennett for the airport appointment, both Ladner and Middleton say.
At an event after the vote, Bennett says Middleton brought up the subject, saying the votes weren’t there to appoint his wife.
Middleton remembers the conversation differently. “He asked me why we did not appoint his wife to the airport commission,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m just going to be quite frank with you, Richard, there are a lot of your family members in local government right now.
“ ‘ . . Nothing against her, but it might not look good to have another member of your family appointed to a board.’ ”
Both Ladner and Bennett say the supervisors making an issue of the airport appointment are “deflecting” because of the PEER report.
Rockco, who was not approached about the airport appointment, said: “Out of 82 counties, Harrison County is the first to have this happen. I have to question the timing. I don’t know of any other counties at this time that are being looked at by the PEER group.”
PEER’s director said he could not divulge who requested the report, but a committee member asked for it based on concerns that had been expressed to him or her.
He said PEER has in the last five years completed one other report involving a county. In 2015, PEER issued a report on the number of Hancock County children in the custody of the state Department of Human Services.
Harrison County supervisors who questioned the motivation for the PEER report also said they believe the board should be open to constructive criticism and consider the report’s recommendations.
The county has compiled its response to the PEER report.
Board attorney Tim Holleman said: “For the most part, the county’s following the law. This is the first time the county knew anything was going on was when PEER showed up. If they had a problem, they should have reported it to the board first, in my opinion, but we never received such a complaint.”