In response to a Mississippi Today request for public records, obtained by Jackson Jambalaya, email evidence suggests that MDOT executives repeatedly whitewashed staff assessments of the safety needs of a frontage road for local residents. Those executives opted instead to use the media requests as another opportunity to bludgeon the state legislature over lack of funding for “priority projects.”

This comes on the heels of an article written by Mississippi Today with the sinister sounding title ‘Public Funds for Private Use’  where certain emails were selected from an ongoing negotiation with the Oak Ridge Home Owners Association over right of way for that road, to portray the proposed project as unnecessary, wasteful and politically leveraged.

MS Today reporter Adam Ganucheau requested a trove of emails pertaining to the Lakeland Frontage Road project that connected both the Oak Ridge and Dogwood Trace subdivisions to the Dogwood Market. Jackson Jambalaya requested copies of what was provided to the Clarion Ledger and MS Today. Jackson Jambalaya and Y’all Politics are now working collaboratively to evaluate the public records responses and make them public in their entirety.

In the request, Ganucheau asked MDOT the answer to a series of specific questions about the project. Jarrod Ravencraft, then Public Affairs Division Director at MDOT, sent an email to Amy Mood, Assistant Chief Engineer Preconstruction at MDOT, to ask her to draft responses as a baseline for Executive Director Melinda McGrath and the press team at MDOT to respond to Ganucheau.

Ganucheau asked the questions in black. Amy Mood’s May 23rd draft response internal to MDOT are in blue.

MDOT emails regarding safety requirements of Lakeland frontage road by yallpolitics on Scribd

On May 30, Ravencraft then forwarded that draft response from Mood to Melinda McGrath and asked for additional guidance. Mood deferred to McGrath on the last two questions in the query, which would reasonably imply that Mood didn’t need any help on the technical/engineering questions.  There were apparently no emails from McGrath responding to that part of the records request. The next responsive email was from Jason Scott to Ravencraft on June 1 with a draft of what they would ultimately respond to Ganucheau with. The response, in its entirety below, completely omitted the engineer’s assessment that the project was necessary and was added specifically for “safety concerns”.

Here’s the whitewashed statement to Ganucheau.

Again, there was no mention of the safety concerns referenced by the MDOT engineer in the final press statement.

Normally, when reporters get rolled by public employees like that and then find out about it, there’s hell to pay. However, it’s clear that the staff version of the project engineer’s assessment of the safety needs of the project was omitted by her higher ups at MDOT.

In another MDOT request from Ganucheau, he for asked a relatively expansive evaluation on a breadth of MDOT projects. Once again, staff was asked to draft responses and AGAIN, the staff claimed that the project was in fact necessary.  In the balance of the first Ganucheau request, there were a multitude of projects that were “bumped ahead of other priority projects”.

However, each public facing comment or portrayal by MDOT has been that the Lakeland frontage project was unnecessary and that it would be at the expense of other more needed projects.  At the point that these staff assessments were made on internal documents, literally hundreds of thousands of dollars had already been expended between traffic studies, engineering assessments, soil boring, ROW acquisition, and other engineering pre-planning requisites.  This was all documented in the email disclosure.

City of Flowood was primary driver

There was clearly a great willingness by the City of to pursue the frontage road project for safety reasons.  There was an exchange between Flowood Public Works Director Garry Miller, Flowood Mayor Gary Rhoads, McGrath, Dick Hall and Amy Mood between October 2015 and early 2016 where Flowood was clearly pressing the case.  The City of Flowood engaged Benchmark Engineering to draft what a road might look like and sent that to McGrath and Mood pressing their case.  Interestingly, the City of Flowood specifically requested to keep the two homeowners associations out of the original conversations with MDOT, which would seem to indicate that the idea did not originate from them as has been clearly portrayed in other articles.

MDOT emails to/from City of Flowood regarding frontage road in late 2015/early 2016 by yallpolitics on Scribd

In preparation for that meeting, McGrath specifically engaged and wanted the printouts to the traffic studies for that project.  As a result of that meeting, the project was revived and put into motion.

What is clearly lacking from any publicly disclosed information is a “smoking gun” or even the suggestion of one across thousands of emails where anyone in the legislature making unusual demands of MDOT relative to this project or more specifically who it should benefit.  There’s not even passing references by staff on disclosed internal communications to legislative pressure during the three years or so of this project going from the drawing board to the ROW acquisition process to engineering and near final approval.

This whole kerfuffle may be as much personal politics over funding and budgets than it is about some “scandal” that coincidentally seems to lack any scandalous behavior that anyone can document in any meaningful way.

It certainly shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the timing of these revelations are against the backdrop of a special session in the next 30-45 days where lawmakers may be asked to revisit how MDOT priorities are funded.

Y’all Politics has additional records requests pending with MDOT and will continue to follow this story.