Prichard’s mayoral runoff on Tuesday, Oct. 4, will feature two men who’ve faced off before under different circumstances.
Incumbent Mayor Troy Ephriam fired former police chief and now his election challenger Jimmie Gardner for insubordination after Ephriam says Gardner — who was not under contract at the time — failed to follow orders.
“His contract was up before I became mayor and he was an at-will employee,” Ephriam said. “There were directives he did not follow.”
While not a direct explanation for his firing, Ephriam said Gardner “compromised the integrity of the mayor’s office” by making what he called false allegations against him to the district attorney. The allegations in question stem from Ephriam’s use of taxpayer money to fuel his personal vehicle.
The allegations vary, but Gardner said he discovered Ephriam was gassing up his personal car on the city’s dime and went to the authorities. Gardner said Ephriam was forced to reimburse the city.
Ephriam, on the other hand, said he often used his personal vehicle to conduct city business, attend meetings and events, and used $20 of personal funds he’d already given to the city to pay for the gas in question. The mayor said he only did it once and actually gave the city $30 extra, preemptively, as reimbursement.
Gardner said this showdown over the gas money was the only reason he was fired. Ephriam disagreed.
The firing resulted in Gardner filing suit against the city. Gardner argued Ephriam alone did not have the authority to terminate his employment and the City Council should have weighed in. Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Charles Graddick ruled in favor of Ephriam and the city.
The incident appears to be one contributing factor to Gardner’s disqualification as police chief in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In a Feb. 27, 2015, letter to the Hattiesburg mayor and city council, Hattiesburg Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 55 President E. Allen Murray expressed concern over the possible hiring of Gardner as chief. The letter specifically mentions fallout from his disagreement with Ephriam as a concern.
“The Hattiesburg Fraternal Order of Police has conducted an independent background check and confidence vote for police chief candidate Jimmie Gardner,” the letter reads. “Due to our findings, it has been determined that should this candidate be chosen, it would continue the undue turmoil that is currently being experienced by members of the Hattiesburg Police Department. Furthermore, it was disturbing to learn that Mr. Gardner unjustifiably maintained control of his former office and had to be removed by the courts.”
A 2015 resolution to hire Gardner as Hattiesburg chief was denied by the City Council there, with at least one councilor saying the letter had a big impact on his decision, according to an excerpt from the meeting minutes. Gardner said the decision by the Hattiesburg City Council had nothing to do with him personally and had more to do with a poor working relationship between the mayor and council.
Since Gardner’s termination, the Prichard Police Department has revolved through a series of interim chiefs and replacements who haven’t worked out for one reason or another. Jerry Speziale resigned, the Prichard City Council didn’t confirm Mike Rowland and Bernard Parrish has now taken over.
Ephriam said that while he has high expectations for those involved in providing public safety for Prichard, he believes Parrish is doing a great job. He said he prefers Parrish’s administrative style as chief, as opposed to Gardner, who he said acted too much like a patrol officer.
Gardner said he believes the chief should take a more active role in the community and interact with residents.
“You have to develop a relationship with the kids and the parents, get to know these kids by name,” Gardner said. “That’s the thing we’ll have to [do] to bring our city back.”
Gardner said the changes at the top have had a negative impact on the city’s police force, claiming Ephriam has done little to stop the city’s problem with loitering and crime while it’s had a negative impact on business. For example, Gardner said the city lost a FedEx distribution location because of a rash of burglaries. Ephriam said FedEx decided to leave because it had outgrown its current location. He added that the city would only lose a business license fee from the move.
Ephriam said since he’s been mayor, the city has taken a multi-agency approach, which has resulted in less loitering and “curb crime.” He said the city collaborates with the U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and other federal and local agencies to address the city’s crime.
Furthermore, Ephriam said there’s more to this election than a police chief. The incumbent pointed to strides he’s made in attracting business to Prichard, his focus on removing blight and funding improvements to infrastructure. Ephriam added that while on his watch, a collaboration with local business owners was able to provide a free transportation option to residents when the WAVE bus service cut its routes through Prichard.
Gardner said he wants to help lower water rates, fix infrastructure and strengthen public safety to the point where “businesses want to invest” in Prichard.
Gardner received the largest number of votes among the five-candidate field with 1,503 during the Aug. 23 municipal election. Ephriam picked up 1,261.
Gardner said the vote totals sent a message to the incumbent, but Ephriam said he believes he can make up the difference in the runoff.