Mysterious Group Behind Hotel Tax Campaign

Before there was ever mention of a special election, members of a group called “OneCoast for Jackson County Committee” began making media appearances to support the new 2% hotel tax. Donna Brown appeared on WLOX in March. At the time, the committee wasn’t mentioned. Brown simply talked about how the new tax would benefit her hotel, increasing revenue and profits.

The tax revenue would go to the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (CVB.) The CVB was re-organized adding Jackson County by passage of a state law in 2013. The new law gave the county three votes on the board and two years to come up with a plan to fund their “fair share.” The JCBOS rejected a similar proposal (brought on a motion by John McKay) in May of 2012.

One week after Brown’s appearance on WLOX the Jackson County house delegation would introduce HB 1672 which would authorize a referendum on the hotel tax.

Two days later Sen. Brice Wiggins introduced SB 2927.

The way the original law was written gave Jackson County until July 1, 2015 to come up with funding to pay for its seat at the CVB table or lose it. Wiggins’ bill would have given the county time to put the vote off until the November general election, saving Jackson County the expense of a special election. It seemed in opposition to the desires of the original law and SB 2927 died in committee.

Governor Phil Bryant signed HB 1672 into law on April 16 and Jackson County was free to hold an election on the tax. Representatives from the CVB showed up at the JCBOS to lobby to hold the vote ASAP. The supervisors adopted a resolution for a special election to be held June 23 at a cost of $40,000.

Barry Cumbest, as quoted by the Mississippi Press:

“The experts say that you’ll get a better turn-out during a special election.”

While exactly the opposite is true, it seems Cumbest meant to say “experts tell us we have a better chance of success with a special election.” This begs the question of “who are these experts?”

Sophisticated Operation

A few weeks before the election Donna Brown was making a media blitz appearing again on WLOX as chair of “OneCoast for Jackson County.”  Even though Brown was the public face of OneCoast, no one would know the true funding and operators behind the group until after election day.

State law requires that any group influencing an election that accepts $200 or more in contributions make a report to the circuit clerk within 10 days. OneCoast took its first $5,000 from Clay Wagner of Hancock Bank.

OneCoast missed three separate filing deadlines:

  • June 8 – 10 days after first $5,000 contribution from Clay Wagner
  • June 10 – Periodic report
  • June 16 – Pre-election report

More than missing deadlines, OneCoast did not even report its existence until the day of elections. The first peek at the money behind the campaign wouldn’t come until two days later June 25.

This might be a forgivable offense for an unsophisticated, ad hoc group of citizens, but the filings revealed exactly the opposite. Despite representations by Donna Brown, filings showed the group had no officers, but listed only the director as Stan Flint and treasurer as Jordan Starnes.

Stan Flint is a Pascagoula native and casino lobbyist. Starnes, his daughter, is also a registered lobbyist. They would certainly be aware of filing requirements and deadlines.

With the election over and won, the July 10 filing was made on time. It revealed only four contributors:

  • Eagle Enterprises owned by Morris Strickland
  • Peoples Bank
  • Allen Beverages
  • $38,000 loan from Charter Bank on June 23 election day

The same day OneCoast took in the $38,000 loan, it immediately paid out $10,000 to Stan Flint’s The Consulting Group and $29,930 to Chism Strategies. Chism was hired to conduct telephone campaigning and direct mail marketing.

$45,000 was spent on the campaign.

Flint explained his success to Karen Nelson with the Sun Herald, stating that they targeted only voters who had a 90% or better voting record in special elections. This yielded around 8,000 voters. Indeed, roughly half of those voters showed up at the polls, with just over 3,700 voting. The measure passed with 71% of the yes vote, clearing the required 60% hurdle.

Ties to SRHS

Morris Strickland is partners with Roy Williams, Ed Trehern, and Dana Foster in the development of the Hilton Garden Inn in Pascagoula. Williams and Trehern are shareholders of Charter Bank, and Foster sits on the advisory board. Strickland is a former SRHS trustee and Williams is the former attorney of the hospital board. Williams’ son Brett took his position upon his retirement.

 Who is Behind Loan?

Following the pattern of untimely filings with the circuit clerk, it seems the loan obscures the true interests behind OneCoast until after the August primaries, possibly later. Until it is repaid, we will never know.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Mysterious Group Behind Hotel Tax Campaign

  1. Who paid the cost of holding this special election? Does this tax also apply to massage parlors if the masseuse comes to your room at the Hilton Garden Inn? When this crowd gets strongly behind something we all need to be afraid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *