Charter change allows city to redefine office

Published 12:16 am Sunday, November 9, 2014

(Illustration by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

(Illustration by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — City of Natchez leaders now have a chance to shape and mold the future of the city clerk’s office by appointing the person who controls the city’s finances.

But who that person will be, what qualifications city leaders will require of the position and how the clerk is compensated will all be decided in the coming months.

The Mississippi State Attorney General’s office approved earlier this week a proposed change to the city’s charter that would allow the city clerk position to go from an elected to an appointed one.

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The Natchez Board of Aldermen moved to make the proposed change in August, more than a year after it was first suggested when board members said the change would allow them to require higher standards of the city clerk’s office.

City Clerk Donnie Holloway has already said he did not have plans to run again in 2016. After serving 12 years in the position, Holloway was reelected as city clerk in 2012.

Holloway said Friday, however, he plans to serve out his term.

Changing the city’s charter required approval from the governor and the state attorney general, which City Attorney Hyde Carby said he received earlier this week.

Carby will send the authorized documents to Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s office, which oversees the state’s elections, in order to ensure no election is scheduled for that position.

The change will be noted in the city’s minutes at the board’s meeting, which will finalize the process.

What comes after that, Carby said, is up to the board members.

“They’ve got a lot of broad authority to hire whoever they think is fit for the job, and it would not be unlike any another appointed position in the city,” Carby said. “I think with the help of Donnie and probably the other accountants and people in that office, the board would come up with a minimum amount of experience preferred and those sorts of things and then set up some sort of timetable before Donnie leaves the office in July 2016.”

While each member of the board might differ on exactly what they hope to see in that position right now, they all agree that having someone in the office before Holloway leaves would be ideal.

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said she thinks a new clerk should be appointed by no later than late spring 2016.

“We need to hire this person no later than March or April so that person can come in and work through the audit process and be right there with Donnie and so that person will have already been there for that transition,” she said.

“I wouldn’t want to come in and have to answer all the questions about an audit and I wasn’t part of the process.”

Alderman Tony Fields said he hopes a candidate could be identified and hired within six months of Holloway’s departure.

“There’s just so much involved with municipal finances that they need to be in there working with Donnie and the rest of the staff at minimum six months before,” Fields said. “But I also want to make sure that we keep a clear focus of the issues we’re facing right now.

“I believe we still have people in that office, Donnie and his staff, who are capable of helping us fix some of the issues we’re having until we get to that point in 2016.”

Those issues became apparent in this most recent budgeting cycle when the city’s budget was adopted 14 days after it was due. If the budget had not passed when it did, the city government faced shutdown as payroll and bills became due in the second half of the month.

Members of the board voiced their displeasure with this year’s budgeting process and the way the city’s books have been presented to them.

Some of those issues could hopefully be solved, Alderman Mark Fortenbery said, when the city is able to require certain experience and exposure to municipal accounting in a job description for the position.

“We need someone who has background in government, running a city’s finances and handling the everyday needs that is involved with all that,” Fortenbery said. “But the more training and qualifications we require, the more salary you’ll have to pay, so we need to start looking at some of that now.”

Alderman Ricky Gray said even though hiring someone before Holloway’s term is up means the city will have to double up on salaries, he’d rather do that than face the alternative.

“It is better to accommodate that salary than to go through the same things we are doing right now,” he said. “Let this person familiarize themselves with the department they are going to have to run rather than on day one say, ‘You have to jump in and run this department.’”

That said, Gray said the board shouldn’t just commit to a flat rate for whoever is hired.

“We would love to have a person with some accounting background, preferably a degree, but payment depends on what they bring to the table,” he said. “This individual will have to have some leadership skills, because they are going to have to be over other people, so I guess it is negotiable.

Fortenbery said he would like the board to begin factoring in some of those costs into this fiscal year’s budget talks so they can be prepared by the time 2016 rolls around.

“I don’t think that figure or salary is in our budget now, but there are things we can start figuring out now to get us there,” Fortenbery said. “We also need to remember the old saying, ‘you get what you pay for’ when we’re doing all this.”

Mathis said the board does not need to rush into setting standards that might not be appropriate when the city has a year to do research and compare how other municipalities select their clerks.

“I am going to suggest we sit down and contact the Mississippi Municipal League and see if they can give us a list of qualifications and things we should be looking for,” she said. “We have got the time to send out requests for proposals and define the job the way it should be.

Alderman Dan Dillard and Alderwoman Sarah Smith were unavailable for comment.

Holloway said he would have no problem working alongside a newly hired clerk prior to the end of his term.

“Depending on how much knowledge they have of government, I would like to sit down with them at budget time and explain how the budget process works,” Holloway said. “Hopefully they hire someone who has a good background in accounting and a person who can grasp things quick, because it is not an easy task.”

Holloway said when he was elected in 2000, he had a week to work with the previous administration before taking over.