City attorney questions remain

Published 12:17 am Tuesday, July 12, 2016

NATCHEZ — Following a controversial city attorney appointment on his first day in office, Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell said the board of aldermen may have unfinished business on the matter.

The board voted 3-2 July 1 to appoint attorney Everett Sanders as city attorney, a position he previously held for eight years. The vote occurred just a few hours after Grennell and the aldermen were sworn into office.

Grennell said Sanders’ nomination, made by Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, blindsided him. Grennell had publicly tapped former Adams County Board of Supervisors attorney Robert “Bob” Latham as his preferred candidate.

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Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith nominated Latham for the position. The board of aldermen is set to meet today, and Grennell said he still has concerns about Sanders’ appointment that he wants to discuss with the board.

Grennell said shortly after Sanders was appointed that he thought Sanders was a less qualified candidate and could be costing the city taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in at least one pending lawsuit.

Grennell was referring to an ongoing lawsuit housing development company Roundstone Development filed against the city claiming $1.8 million in damages after the city denied its zoning application to allow construction of a housing development stretching from Old Washington Road to Oriole Terrace.

In 2011, Circuit Court Judge Forrest “Al” Johnson ruled in a default judgment against the city for breach of contract and misrepresentation.

The ruling issued by Johnson was a default judgment because the city failed to respond to the lawsuit in a timely manner. Sanders was city attorney at the time.

Johnson outlined the two instances in which the city did not file a timely response or any response in his judgment order.

The lawsuit, or complaint, was filed on Jan. 20, 2009, and properly served to the city on Feb. 9, 2009, the order states.

A response from the city was due by March 11, 2009, but only responded two days later on March 13, 2009. Sanders’ response sought for the court to dismiss the lawsuit, but lacked legal support for a dismissal that the plaintiff’s attorney said is required by court rules.

On Jan. 14, 2010, the court ordered the city to file a response to an amended complaint filed by Roundstone.

A year later, on Jan. 14, 2011, the city had not filed a response, and accordingly, a default judgment in favor of Roundstone was issued, the order states.

When asked Monday why the filing were not made in a timely manner, Sanders said he had no comment.

The city now faces $1.8 million in damages Roundstone claims the city owes the company.

Arceneaux-Mathis said when she was “very aware” of the lawsuit and damages facing the city when she considered Sanders as her nomination for city attorney. Arceneaux-Mathis said Sanders had given her an explanation in regards to the lawsuit, but said she did not feel it was her place to share it.

As far as the lawsuit factoring into her consideration of Sanders for city attorney, Arceneaux-Mathis declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

Grennell also said the city may need to review the procedure by which Sanders was appointed. While nominations and votes were made by the aldermen, no direct motion to hire Sanders was made by an alderman.

“There was not a formal motion since Sanders had the majority of the vote of the aldermen,” Grennell said. “We really didn’t have an attorney sitting in there guiding us (on rules to follow when making appointments). There was no one to legally facilitate us through that process.”

Former city attorney Hyde Carby’s last day was June 30, and Grennell said it did not occur to him beforehand to ask Carby to be present at the meeting until an attorney was appointed.

“I thought the board was going to vote for Bob, and Bob would step up,” Grennell said.

Given lingering concerns he has as well as concerns he has heard from community members, Grennell anticipates the city attorney issue to come up again at a meeting, possibly today.

If the board wishes to reconsider its vote, a member of the prevailing side — Arceneaux-Mathis, Ward 2 Alderman Billie Joe Frazier and Ward 4 Alderwoman Felicia Irving — would have to make that motion.

Frazier and Irving could not be reached for comment.

Ward 5 Alderman Benjamin Davis abstained from the vote, which is in effect voting for the majority, according to Robert’s Rules of Order. It is unclear at this point if Davis’ abstention prevents him from making a motion to reconsider.

Davis said he had heard feedback from community members on both sides of the issue, but would not say whether he is in favor or opposes the matter coming before the board again.

“I don’t make (any) decisions without talking to my board,” he said.

Smith said she “stands by my conviction that I voted for the most qualified candidate for the job of city attorney.”

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard said he would like to see the city attorney issue revisited again, simply because the “process is kind of ridiculous.”

“There’s all this talk about change from the way we’ve been doing things. One of the things that needs to change is this transition period, so you don’t have these kinds of blindsiding votes, where even though the mayor made his nomination — and it surprises me that he didn’t consider someone else would make a nomination — that there be a transition period so it can be done right.

“It doesn’t have to be done right after the swearing-in. We could have other legal representation for a month or two months or however long it may take to (get) resumes and give everybody a chance to make careful considerations.”

Dillard said he has heard and read much discussion about Sanders’ appointment. Grennell and Arceneaux-Mathis both released statements on the matter.

“I’ve been a little disappointed by the tenor of the comments that have been made,” Dillard said. “It’s really not productive.

“In light of all that, I would hope that it would come up again and that it would have more dialogue and discussion.”

The board of aldermen will meet in the Natchez City Council Chambers, with the finance meeting slated for 9:30 a.m. and the regular meeting at 11 a.m. today.