City seeks AG opinion on city attorney vote

Published 12:39 am Wednesday, July 13, 2016

NATCHEZ — After more than two hours in executive session and a tie-breaking vote, the Natchez Board of Aldermen is still far from unified on its choice for city attorney.

The aldermen neither agreed to move forward with the appointment of Everett Sanders — who has already been sworn in — nor to vote again on Sanders or another choice.

Instead, they will seek the state attorney general’s opinion on whether the recent appointment Sanders is legally sound.

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The board met Tuesday in front of a standing-room only crowd that waited more than an hour — and entertained themselves with a sing-along — for the 11 a.m. meeting to start.

The aldermen and mayor met in executive session in the City Council Chambers’ conference room from approximately 10:20 a.m. until 12:10 p.m. and began the meeting at 12:15 p.m. The reason provided for executive session was to discuss the performance of an employee and the appointment of the city attorney, which was made July 1 when the board named Sanders the attorney despite Mayor Darryl Grennell publicly tapping local attorney Bob Latham as his candidate.

Following the executive session, Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith, Ward 5 Alderman Benjamin Davis and Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard voted for a motion to have Adams County Board of Supervisors Attorney Scott Slover contact the attorney general’s office on behalf of the city. Slover sat in on the executive session and is providing legal counsel to the city until the attorney appointment is resolved.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, Ward 2 Alderman Billie Joe Frazier and Ward 4 Alderwoman Felicia Irving voted against the motion to contact the AG. Those same aldermen voted for Sanders in the July 1 meeting.

Davis abstained from the July 1 vote.

Grennell broke the 3-3 tie Tuesday with a vote for the motion to contact the attorney general’s office.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Grennell said he and the board had two main aspects of the appointment about which they wanted counsel from the attorney general’s office.

The first matter was whether Grennell should have had a vote on Sanders’ appointment since, Grennell said, the city’s charter indicates the mayor has a vote on the board’s “election of officers.”

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in 2003 in Tisdale v. the City Council of City of Aberdeen that the city attorney was not an officer of the board.

The case came about when the then mayor of Aberdeen asserted that he had a right to vote for the attorney appointment given that Aberdeen’s special charter afforded him a vote for the election of officers.

The court concluded the mayor would only vote for the city attorney appointment in the case of a tie.

Another issue Grennell said the board would seek guidance on is whether the appointment properly followed procedure.

During the meeting, the board opened the floor for nominations for city attorney. Arceneaux-Mathis nominated Sanders, a former city attorney, for the position.

Smith subsequently nominated Latham, a former attorney for the Adams County Board of Supervisors.

The board then voted to close nominations.

Grennell then called for votes between Sanders and Latham. The aldermen voted by saying either Sanders or Latham, with Davis abstaining.

Grennell declared Sanders the winner in the vote, and Sanders was subsequently sworn in.

No official motion was made by an alderman to appoint either Sanders or Latham.

Grennell said the board would seek the attorney general’s opinion on whether the appointment would be considered official given that there was no motion.

The board of aldermen follows Robert’s Rules of Order for parliamentary procedure.

Mississippi Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Rachael Ring said Tuesday afternoon the attorney general’s office only issues opinions on state law, per state statute, not Robert’s Rules of Order.

“The municipality would make the determination based on their interpretation of their own policy,” Ring said.

Ring referenced two previous letters the attorney general’s office issued for similar requests, which declined to provide an opinion interpreting rules of order.

A 2012 letter to the Town of Brooksville states, “Whether the action taken by the municipality … complied with the municipality’s procedures is a factual determination to be made by the governing authorities.”

Arceneaux-Mathis said during Tuesday’s meeting that despite the questioning of procedure, she stood by her nomination and vote for Sanders.

“I did not know this was going to be a procedural question … I stand by my vote, and I think we have an attorney,” she said.

In other news:

– City Clerk Wendy McClain gave an update on city finances, and when asked by Dillard, said she did not anticipate the city needing to borrow money to make payroll or other financial obligations — as it has in the past — through Sept. 30, which ends the current fiscal year.

McClain also said the audit for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, which was due June 30, should be completed in the next week.

Grennell said following a report of the audit’s findings, he would also like a forensic audit to be conducted of the city’s finances, and the board agreed. Grennell said he has already met with possible auditors, and Arceneaux-Mathis suggested he also contact the state auditor’s office.

– The board recessed the meeting in memory of Dr. Fredricka Cain Todd and Bradley Harrison, a Natchez planning commissioner. Both died last week.