Mississippi mayor penalized for being whistleblower, now she is asking for the public’s help
Ryshonda Beechem, the first African-American mayor of Pelahatchie, Mississippi, just wants to do her job – righteously govern on behalf of her constituents. However, the town’s Board of Alderman not only continues to levy a series of microaggressions and superfluous obstacles against Beechem, but also their antics are seriously impeding her mayoral duties while directly impacting her personal life.
Not only was Beechem’s salary reduced by 75 percent in 2018, but the board’s unethical business practices, exposed by the mayor, have resulted in Beechem being held personally responsible in repaying over $80,000 in misused funds. Beechem’s unfair and biased treatment is not only a blatant display of disrespect for her authority and civility, but it shows a brazen disregard for the Pelahatchie community.
The 39-year-old mayor and her counsel are calling on Mississippi residents and news media to 1) help hold Pelahatchie’s elected officials to the standard of conduct that reflects a respect for the law, 2) call out faux journalism peddled by the likes of Rankin County News and 3) support the mayor’s legal efforts to fight an unjust system. Will you answer the charge?
Born and raised in Pelahatchie, a small town located in predominately white Rankin County, Beechem said her days as an adolescent were memorable. “I was always helping our elderly at the town drug stores and grocery stores. I would go pick up groceries for them or their medication,” she said. “I was a leader and active in church by participating in choir, usher and all youth programs.”
Beechem attended and graduated from Pelahatchie High School, where her academic involvement included being student body president and yearbook editor. She is also proud to share that she is the product of the Pelahatchie Head Start, a program she staunchly supports.
Beechem would eventually make history when she beat out two white women candidates for the mayoral post in June 2017.
“The reason I ran for mayor is that there was an opportunity where I could give back to the very community that raised me,” said Beechem via an email exchange. “It’s time for progress, and I wanted to be able to advance our town by helping provide community development and economic growth.”
Beechem’s win was a small victory for African-Americans whose political achievements have a history in this country since Reconstruction of backlash or being undermined. Former U.S. President Barack Obama and Stacy Abrams, Democratic nominee in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, are examples of the contention that people of color and women of color encounter when stepping into majority white male arenas. However, it is not an exact science when determining if the impediments Beechem faces are a result of her skin color or her gender. The five-member Board of Aldermen is made up of men and women both black and white.
However, women upholding sexist and misogynistic ideologies is not a foreign concept and men exercising contempt for women in positions of power is equally common. One cannot ignore the fact that a Pelahatchie police officer reported that a board member used a racial slur to threaten Beechem. Acts like this are perhaps underreported and too commonplace in Trumpland. If one had to surmise, Beechem’s treatment has an air of both sexism and racism, although it seems hard pressed to find many in the state of Mississippi who may publicly agree. It appears many are unaware of Beechem’s struggles because of a lack of the far-reaching coverage necessary for her story to reach the masses.
There has been scattered media coverage of Beechem’s effort to work in unison with a board she deems uncooperative. A Google search reveals the most recent headlines are of her 75 percent reduction in salary made by the same board in question. The board also reduced their wages, which means the mayor and the board members make the same amount of money.
For those who don’t know the math, Beechem went from making $12,000 a year to making $3,000 a year. Last checked, mayors and alderman boards do not have or share the same responsibilities. Beechem says the significant cut is a result of her cooperation with the state auditor’s investigation into the disbursement and use of money from the town’s Police Seizure Fund. She views the act as retaliation.
Now, pay close attention to the backstory. On July 1, 2017, Beechem’s first day in office, she says the former city clerk presented her with checks to sign for the city’s July and August 2017 bills. The former clerk stressed the urgency of Beechem signing the checks immediately because “bills were due” and the board had “already approved the expenditures at the board meeting.” Beechem signed the checks with the impression that this was standard procedure.
Shortly after that, the mayor became suspicious as to the city’s bookkeeping methods, and also took notice of the drug fund account.
“What made me suspicious about the process was the clerk’s urgency in having me sign 70-plus checks. The next thing that made me suspicious was the amount of checks that were being written out of that one account for things such as town loans, etc.,” Beechem explained.
Concerned, the mayor said she researched and found the relevant Mississippi statute dealing with how seized monies were to be spent, and showed it to the board members who refused to deviate from their practice. In September 2017, the Pelahatchie city attorney, Brad Mills, provided her with a copy of a research memo he prepared, which concluded that, in his opinion, “All money disbursed or used from the Police Seizure Fund, was done so properly, and in accordance with State and Federal Law.”
Out of options, Beechem then contacted the state auditor on the proper use of the funds and found out the account was being exploited.
The mayor said she again went to the board and informed them of her findings. However, the board refused to acquiesce. Beechem said she again contacted the auditor’s office to inquire if “there is a gray area to ensure we are using it properly.”
Beechem shared that the response from the state auditor was “no, Mayor, there is no gray area.” The auditor then advised her to call investigations “because they definitely have violated the law.” Beechem said she complied with all requests relative to the state auditor’s investigation.
Thomas J. Bellinder, Beechem’s attorney, said the board took substantive steps to retaliate against and punish the mayor for her cooperation with the investigation, by formally reducing her salary by 75 percent among other numerous combative actions.
“This despite the mayor being an employee required to accomplish time-consuming tasks and job duties requiring her to be present at city hall for, among other things, keeping City Hall open such that city business can go forward,” he said. “Furthermore, the board sought to ban cameras from City Hall meetings to cover up their actions, going as far as to pass a city ordinance that cameras would be banned; however, the mayor vetoed the ordinance, and the board did not override her veto. This was an overt bad faith act to silence the mayor and the investigation of the state auditor.”
On May 21, 2018, the state auditor demands were released, and in it, Beechem was ordered to repay over $80,000 personally.
As to why Beechem was ordered to repay any money, Bellinder said “The state auditor’s initial findings are that she is jointly and severally liable for any checks she signed relative to this issue, which totals the $80K plus. Technically her portion of that would be 1/7, shared among the five board members and the city clerk. We have contested this, and continue to contest it, as she acted as a whistleblower and acted reasonably as soon as she was able to determine what was happening was against the law.”
To date, Beechem has accumulated over $30,000 in private legal fees and continues to contest the state auditor’s demand. She has started a GoFundMe account to raise money for her cause, which can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/mayor-ryshonda-beechem-city-of-pelahatchie-ms
Beechem appears to remain resilient amid strife and admits that the difficulties she has endured as a first-term mayor have been eye-opening.
“In the face of adversity, I feel the time is always right to get it right. There was no doubt that I would be faced with challenges along the way; however, the extent to which I’m facing them has definitely put a wider perspective on things.”
Beechem and Bellinder said they are asking for the assistance of the community and media to call out the abuse of power by those bent on using their positions to promote personal agendas above the good of the people.
“It is the duty of those who stand for justice, fairness, and integrity to let their voices be heard. Beechem is committed to transparency and needs the support of those far and wide to exact what is wrong in Pelahatchie,” said Bellinder.