City never got OK for elected chief

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 1, 1999

Three decades ago, the City of Natchez switched its selection of police chief from elected to appointed. Now, after investigating a complaint from a local resident, the U.S. Justice Department says it never received a request to review that change, a process required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Under that act, first passed in 1965 and later strengthened, any election change must be &uot;precleared&uot; by the Justice Department.

Natchez resident Charles Sanders said he submitted a complaint to the Justice Department about eight months ago because he suspected the city never precleared the change.

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Sanders, along with Robert Minor, also filed a lawsuit last year against the City of Natchez and Adams County for an elected school board. That request was denied by federal Judge William H. Barbour Jr. last month.

In a letter addressed to City Attorney Walter Brown, the Justice Department says the city has two options to submit the change:

n Submit it to the U.S. attorney general for administrative review or

n Submit it to the District Court of the District of Columbia for a declaratory judgment.

A Justice Department review will determine if the change does not &uot;have the effect of discriminating on account of race, color or membership in a language minority group,&uot; according to the letter signed by Joseph D. Rich, acting chief of the voting rights section for the Justice Department.

&uot;Changes which affect voting are legally unenforceable without Section 5 preclearance,&uot; the letter states.

Rich was not available for comment Wednesday.

The Justice Department has 60 days to respond from the time the city submits its request for preclearance. Brown said it would take the city some time to gather the information needed for the request.

Brown said the problem does not affect Police Chief Willie Huff’s job right now.

Brown – who was barely out of law school when the city made the change from elected to appointed police chief – said he assumes the change simply was not precleared in 1968.

Brown was not city attorney at the time.

Post-clearance of election changes is rare but not unheard of, Brown said.

But after 31 years of appointed police chiefs – from J.T. Robinson to Willie Huff – Brown said he expected the Justice Department to clear the city’s change.

&uot;I see no reason why they wouldn’t preclear it,&uot; he said. &uot;Very few cities now have an elected chief.&uot;

Justice Department spokeswoman Chris Whatney said similar requests from cities after the fact have been rejected before, but the majority are accepted.

If the city’s request for preclearance is rejected, &uot;We don’t automatically throw the person out,&uot; Whatney said. &uot;Ultimately there could be a lawsuit.&uot;

Tony Byrne, who was mayor when the change occurred, said the decision was made because city officials feared someone without law enforcement experience would be elected police chief.

Joseph Zuccaro was city attorney at the time. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Byrne said he assumed at the time that clearance had been made for the change.

&uot;It seems like if it had been wrong the Justice Department or someone would have said something sooner,&uot; Byrne said.

Sanders said he and others tried in the past to get the city to change back to an elected police chief

&uot;We couldn’t get anybody to say, ‘Yes, you’re right, and we’ll change it back,&uot; he said. &uot;If you want to get angry with this it’s easy.&uot;

Mary Woods, also a member of the local NAACP chapter, said having an elected police chief would bring more accountability to the office.

&uot;That’s the main thing. It’s not that we are targeting Chief Huff, it’s the law that has not been implemented,&uot; she said. &uot;The argument is not about the chief. It’s about the way the chief attained his job.&uot;