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Charter change: Should city clerk, municipal judge be appointed?

JAY SOWERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Natchez City Clerk Donnie Holloway, who has announced he will not run for office again, is one of many who believe the position should be filled through appointment instead of an election.
JAY SOWERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Natchez City Clerk Donnie Holloway, who has announced he will not run for office again, is one of many who believe the position should be filled through appointment instead of an election.

NATCHEZ — When Natchez voters head to the polls in 2016, they might be voting on two fewer positions.

The Natchez Board of Aldermen moved last week to revise the city charter so that the city clerk and the municipal judge would no longer be elected positions but would instead be appointed by the aldermen.

The motion, made by Alderman Dan Dillard, was initially only to consider the city clerk’s position, but it was later amended by Alderman Ricky Gray to include the municipal judge as well.

Dillard said after the meeting that he had not gone in with the intention of making the motion that day, but that the idea had been discussed before. After seeing financial statements that were unclear — following months of similar statements — Dillard said he felt prompted to move forward with the motion.

City Clerk Donnie Holloway later issued his own endorsement of the idea, saying he had already decided that he would not run for the office again and that the complexities of the job required someone with significant qualifications.

Natchez is one of the few holdout cities in Mississippi that still has an elected clerk, Holloway said.

“I was recently speaking with a clerk friend of mine who was elected, and he said he was also considering making a similar announcement and recommendation to his city,” he said.

Holloway declined to specify which city his friend worked for, saying he did so out of respect for his friend’s privacy.

Gray could not be reached last week for comment about why he wanted to include the municipal judge in the change with the city charter. Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, who seconded Gray’s amendment, said she did so in part to get the discussion on the floor.

The amendment was not discussed in the meeting but passed without opposition.

Dillard and Fortenbery said they did not have an opinion about the judge’s position at this time but voted for the measure because they wanted the change to the clerk’s position to pass. Alderman Tony Fields said he had likewise done more research on appointing the clerk’s position than the judge, while Alderwoman Sarah Smith said at this point she likes the idea of being efficient with amendments to the charter.

“Looking at the research, it says that the same trend (of making positions appointed) is taking place for judges, so when you are doing something so complex as amending the city charter, you might as well look at all the issues,” Smith said.

“As you are doing the process to look at both positions, you might as well do it that way and hear what the citizens have to say.”

Mathis said she feels appointing the judge’s position will help smooth some issues the aldermen have had with the court in recent months.

“One of the things that was a concern was the little bit of communication between the two departments, especially as we were developing the environmental court earlier this year,” Mathis said. “You can’t request something of another elected official — I think the people have been a little leery about the communication between the two departments.”

But while Holloway has officially endorsed the idea of making his position an appointed one, Municipal Judge Jim Blough is less enthusiastic about the idea.

In an open letter to the residents of Natchez, the mayor and the board of aldermen, Blough said the aldermen apparently felt amending the city charter was too cumbersome when establishing the city’s environmental court earlier this year.

Blough asked if the move to change the charter was instead a response to the judge telling the other officials that some things they wanted to do — including the establishment of the environmental court or adding elected officials’ names to the municipal court’s general fund checking account — were not legal.

Blough also cited in his letter instances of elected officials claiming to void a traffic ticket or having city employees draft communication saying they had taken care of a ticket as things he had told “elected officials” they could not do.

“Most of the Mississippi municipal judges are appointed by their municipal governing boards, not the mayor,” Blough wrote. “Most of these appointed judges will also tell you that (the) power of appointment is their only job security.  That makes it difficult for them if a mayor or a board member just calls to ask about their son’s possession charge or Aunt Betty’s speeding ticket.

“For these and other reasons, the separation of powers is an important element of our local, state and national government.  An independent judiciary, elected or appointed, is an important part of that formula.  My telling other officials, ‘No,’ may make others assume that I am being difficult or that I lack their vision for the City of Natchez.  I do not see it that way.”

Fields said that while some may see an appointed judge or clerk as being less accountable to the people, he doesn’t see it that way.

“That puts even more accountability on the mayor and the board of aldermen,” he said. “Me as one alderman, that is not something I am going to run away from. I believe that is more accountability on us to do what is right by the taxpayers.”

Smith expressed similar sentiments, and said this is why she thinks it is time for the public to examine the issue. Residents have an option to take a change to the city charter to a referendum, she said.

“Ultimately, we have to answer to the voters,” Smith said.

After the amendment to the charter is drafted, it will be sent first to the governor’s office and then to the attorney general’s office for vetting before the city can adopt it.

If  10 percent of voters file a petition asking that the change go to a vote before its effective date, a special election to determine if the change can go into effect will be mandated.

City Attorney Hyde Carby said the process of making the change will likely be years in the making, and that he is examining how other special charter cities have handled the process.

“It is not like I draft it up, we advertise it for 10 days and it is official,” he said. “The reason it is such a cumbersome process is that we are changing the structure of our government, and so we need to be deliberate so everybody understands what happens. You shouldn’t be able to abruptly change the form of your government, and our local government has been operating this way for some time and — not that this is some seismic shift — it is good that takes more than filling out a form on the Internet, that a lot of eyes have to look at (the change) before it can be done.”

Carby said that regardless of if the change is ultimately passed, it can’t take effect until after the current term for clerk and judge end in 2016.