Commission verifying petition

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 8, 1999

The latest effort at getting an elected school board in Natchez and Adams County may be cutting it close to the wire. State Rep. Phillip West filed the petition directed at the board of supervisors late Friday, saying it was the result of efforts by a group of local citizens and elected officials. He said the petition had more than 1,600 signatures; 1,500 need to be verified as registered voters in order for the referendum to be placed on the Nov. 2 ballot.

But Circuit Clerk Fred Ferguson said the election commission needs to order the ballots by early next week in order to get them back in time for absentee voting. State law requires counties to have the ballots 45 days before the general election.

That would mean the board of supervisors has to make a decision on the petition Monday.

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Ferguson said he’s been advised by county attorneys to get the signatures verified in time.

So this week election commissioners are verifying the petition signatures, a task Commissioner Catherine Meng said was not easy to do quickly. She and other commissioners spent Wednesday deciphering the handwritten names and addresses on the petition.

&uot;We’ll do the best we can and hope they get the number of names they need,&uot; Meng said.

Once signatures are verified, it is up to the supervisors whether to put the referendum on the ballot, Ferguson said.

West said that as long as the petition has the required number of names, the county and state are obligated to get the referendum on the ballot.

The board of aldermen appoints three members to the school board, while supervisors appoint two members.

West said the joint Natchez-Adams School Board – created by special legislation in the 1950s – is unconstitutional for two reasons:

n Since city residents can vote in both city and county elections, West said, city residents ultimately have more say in appointments. West said this violates the &uot;one man, one vote&uot; principle.

n Since the school board can levy taxes without having to get approval from an elected officials, county residents are being taxed without proper representation, he said.

The petition is the latest in a string of efforts in the past year to force the city and county to switch from an elected to appointed school board.

West has twice tried to pass legislation in the state Legislature to get an elected school board. This past year the bill did not make it out of the education committee.

A lawsuit requesting the switch by Adams County residents Charles Sanders and Robert &uot;Big Bob&uot; Minor was denied last month by federal Judge William H. Barbour.

And a request for a referendum from Natchez Alderman Theodore &uot;Bubber&uot; West was denied by the board of supervisors, which said it could not legally put the item on the ballot.

Rep. West said he hopes the referendum can show citizens’ support for an elected school board.

&uot;People who tax us and oversee our tax dollars should be accountable to us on election day,&uot; he said. &uot;We’re asking the voters and taxpayers to correct something that is unconstitutional and unfair to the voters in Natchez and Adams County.&uot;

But even if voters do not show support for the elected board, West said he will not give up the fight to get one, because he said the appointed board is unconstitutional.

Mike Lanford, an attorney in the state attorney general’s office, said the voters have the right to request a non-binding referendum on the ballot, but how school board members are chosen would likely have to be changed with legislation.