Resident wants chiefs elected

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 3, 1999

Only a handful of police chiefs in Mississippi are elected, but one local resident wants Natchez to reverse a 30-year-old decision to make the position appointed.

The City of Natchez, which has had an appointed police chief since 1968, was informed by the U.S. Justice Department this week that the city never submitted paperwork to change the position from elected to appointed. Such changes need approval, or preclearance, from the Justice Department before they are legal, according to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

After an investigation prompted by local resident Charles Sanders, the Justice Department found no record of a request for the change from elected to appointed.

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Now the city must submit to the Justice Department documents showing the need for the change.

Tony Byrne, who was mayor at the time of the switch, said city officials made the decision because they feared someone without any law enforcement experience would be elected police chief.

But Sanders said the police chief needs to be elected in order to bring accountability to the office.

Mayor Larry L. &uot;Butch&uot; Brown and City Attorney Walter Brown said they were not aware of the 30-year-old problem until the Justice Department notified them.

Ken Winter, secretary-treasurer of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police and director of the Mississippi Delta Law Enforcement Academy, said many cities switched in order to attract qualified people to the position.

&uot;When it’s appointed you have some control over the office,&uot; said Winter, who noted that two of Mississippi’s elected sheriffs are convicted felons. &uot;A law enforcement officer really is not a representative of the public.&uot;

Sanders also filed a lawsuit last year asking that the Natchez-Adams School Board be elected rather than appointed. That request was denied last month by federal Judge William H. Barbour Jr.

Attorney Brown said the city will comply with the Justice Department’s request, but does not expect it to deny the city’s clearance of the change.

But Sanders said that even if the chief’s position has been appointed for 30 years, it still isn’t legal.

&uot;Congress passed a law and the city didn’t abide by it,&uot; Sanders said. &uot;Just because it’s been going on for 30 years doesn’t make it right.&uot;