Retired judge appointed to fill Gray’s seat on Natchez Board of Aldermen

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, December 22, 2015

NATCHEZ — Natchez aldermen voted 4-1 Monday to appoint retired Justice Court Judge Mary Lee Toles to fill the seat of outgoing Ward 2 Alderman Rickey Gray.

Gray will vacate his seat on the board after 15 years when he is sworn in as an Adams County supervisor Jan. 4. Toles will then be sworn in and will serve as alderwoman until a new alderman is elected in the city election. The general election is June 7.

Gray made the motion to appoint Toles, which was seconded by Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard.

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Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery voted against the appointment after voicing concerns about Toles being a party in a lawsuit against the city.

Toles is a litigant in a lawsuit filed by Toles, former Natchez Mayor Phillip West, the Rev. Clifton Marvel and Jacqueline Marsaw of the NAACP. The lawsuit was filed in May and alleged the city’s ward lines were drawn in a way that diluted the voting strength of black residents.

The city has since adopted a redistricting plan that adjusts the ward lines, but the lawsuit is still pending.

Fortenbery raised the question of appointing a resident in an ongoing lawsuit to City Attorney Hyde Carby.

Carby said he had researched the matter and consulted with former city attorney Walter Brown, who also served as chairman of the Mississippi Ethics Commission.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said she also consulted with Brown in anticipation of Toles’ appointment.

Based on the research, Carby said, he could find no indication the appointment would be illegal and said if discussion about the lawsuit came up as a matter of city business, Toles would have to recuse herself.

Carby cited a case in Cleveland in which a litigant in lawsuit against the city won a seat on the board of aldermen. Fortenbery noted that Natchez was in a different set of circumstances because Toles’ seat on the board would come as a result of an appointment not an election.

Carby said no definitive answer could be given without seeking an opinion from the ethics commission, but said he did not foresee any issues with the appointment

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith asked Toles, who was present at the meeting, to speak to the board about whether Toles felt her involvement in the lawsuit would prevent her from being unbiased during her service as an alderwoman.

Toles said she would do the best to her ability to serve as alderwoman.

“Insofar as the litigation, certainly if an issue (was) to come up, I would understand that I would have to recuse myself,” she said.

Ward 4 Alderman Tony Fields said a recusal because of litigation is not unlike the instances when he must recuse himself from discussing school district business as an alderman. Fields is principal at Natchez High School.

Gray noted that he approached Toles about the position, and she did not ask to be appointed. He also noted she has no desire to hold the position permanently and will not run for election.

Gray, Smith and Arceneaux-Mathis thanked Toles for her willingness to serve and dedicate the time to being an alderwoman.

In other news from the meeting:

4The board voted to pay bills to Simmons Erosion Control for $184,000 for work on the Natchez Trails Project and $87,000 to Paul Jackson and Associates for work on the Broadway Street railroad depot.

The board had previously decided to pay the bills out of the casino annual lease fund, which is the account in which the $1 million annual lease payment from Magnolia Bluffs Casino is deposited.

Carby said, however, the lease is structured in a way where now the payments begin to come in monthly rather than a lump sum once a year.

In light of that, the board approved a motion made by Dillard to pay the $87,900 out of the community development fund, which is money the city receives from Magnolia Bluffs for community development projects, and pay the approximately $184,000 out of the annual lease fund.

Assistant City Clerk Wendy McClain said the annual lease fund had approximately $189,345 currently in the account.

The payment from the community development fund would serve as an interfund loan, and Dillard stipulated that once casino lease funds came in, the money be repaid to the community development fund.

Dillard said he believes money for the trails project has already been set aside in capital improvements and asked that matter be further researched.

Most of the money for the payments approved Monday is reimbursable to the city from grant funding, Community Development Director James Johnston said.

-The board set the candidates’ qualifying period for next year’s city election from Jan. 4 until March 10.

The primary election will be May 10. If a runoff election is needed, it will be May 26.

The general election is scheduled for June 7.