Wednesday, June 27, 2007
City Council President Ben Allen resigned last week, prompting a special election in Ward 1 and immediately changing the balance of power in city government. Although Allen became a Melton critic this year, voting against many of the mayor's proposals, he remained the one councilman able to forge compromises on a council deeply divided over the Melton administration. Allen's departure has apparently emboldened Melton supporters, while Melton critics deprived City Council of a quorum by walking out on a June 25 meeting.
"Words can't express my appreciation to all of you for this treasured opportunity," Allen wrote in a two-page, handwritten letter of resignation last week, which explained that his resignation was health related. Allen's official last day in office was Friday, June 22.
Vice President Frank Bluntson assumed the presidency and will preside over meetings until the council elects a new president.
Allen's departure means that the four-member majority that has tangled with the mayor on many controversial issues will be reduced to three, virtually ensuring 3-to-3 votes on a host of contentious council matters.
Council members Leslie McLemore, Marshand Crisler and Margaret Barrett-Simon have long been vocal critics of the mayor, even before Allen joined their voting bloc.
Councilmen Bluntson, Charles Tillman and Kenneth Stokes are intensely loyal to the mayor and vote in favor of nearly all his proposals. All three members defended the mayor's demolition of a duplex on Ridgeway Street in August 2006, though that incident resulted in multiple felony counts against Melton, who was found not guilty of those charges last April. Stokes has argued that the city should pay the $50,000 in attorney fees for defending Melton's bodyguards Michael Recio and Marcus Wright in that case, contending that that the city should pay whatever legal fees are required to continue the mayor's "crime-fighting efforts."
The new political make-up of the council was already on display at the June 19 regular meeting, when Bluntson presided because Allen was absent with health complications. Allen announced his resignation the next day.
A-1 Pallet Company owner Charlotte Reeves requested an extension on the city's recent decision to tear down her business, a matter which has drawn subpoenas from the FBI, Crisler said last Friday. Reeves argued that the council should delay the demolition until the city got approval from the Historic Preservation Commission, which must approve demolitions in the Farish Street historic preservation district.
Bluntson responded to Reeves by turning to Melton. "Mayor, do you have an opinion?" he asked.
"We should move forward," Melton replied.
"Ms. Reeves, the council does not approve your continuance," Bluntson then told Reeves, without submitting the matter to a council vote.
Reeves has since been granted a temporary restraining order in Hinds County chancery court against the city, protecting her business from demolition.
At a June 25 special meeting, the council unanimously approved city payroll disbursements, but then—on the advice of city attorneys—added an amendment reducing pay for employees Todd Chandler and Charles Melvin, prior to their appointments as department heads.
Melton appointed Chandler as fire chief and Melvin as director of Parks and Recreation, but the council voted against confirming them earlier this year. Instead of moving them back to their original positions, the mayor made Chandler assistant chief and Melvin an assistant chief administration officer with responsibility for parks and recreation. Melton insisted on paying them each around $70,000 a year--—well above their old salaries.
Melton joined the meeting and announced that he would veto the amendment to reduce pay, despite an attorney general's opinion from Jim Hood that Chandler and Melvin must revert to their previous salaries.
"Well, the AG is absolutely wrong," Melton said. "As mayor of this city, I can place them where I want to in city government. ... The attorney general is absolutely incorrect, and we'll handle that in court if we have to," Melton said, adding that he was "struggling" to keep Chandler and Melvin from suing the council.
Deputy Attorney General Michael Lanford told the Jackson Free Press that Hood's statement is a "correct statement of law."
"It would always be in the best interest of the City of Jackson to follow the law, but that is a decision for them to make. Any violation of the law would be investigated by the state auditor and referred to us for prosecution or collection in due course," he said.
McLemore and Barrett-Simon walked out of the meeting as members squabbled over procedure, trying to ensure that Melton could veto only the amendment and not the entire payroll. Crisler was not present for the meeting, leaving only three members in the Melton bloc, which was not enough members to reach a quorum to continue the meeting.
Barrett-Simon called the meeting pointless. "For what reason would I stay?" she asked just after she left. "(Melton) has folks there who are going to vote with him no matter what, so why stay here and waste your time? ... He's going against the advice of his own legal department ... but I don't intend to violate what I believe is the attorney general's opinion. This, again, is another city sideshow. How long can you sit and watch that?"
McLemore told the JFP that Allen's seat will remain vacant until the results of a special election. That election must be held within 30 to 45 days of the resignation, though it could be folded into the upcoming August primary. The council was set to vote for a new president in July, though members now say that vote will likely have to wait until Ward 1 elects a new council member. As a consequence, Bluntson will likely preside over council meetings through the rest of summer.
Bluntson said he sympathized with Allen's decision because he also suffered health problems. "I applaud Ben for looking out for himself," he said.
Councilman Marshand Crisler said the city would greatly miss Allen's experience.
"It certainly is very disturbing to have someone of Mr. Allen's tenure step down in such an abrupt manner. This kind of thing shakes the governmental foundation in which we operate," Crisler said, summing up the last 18 months as "bizarre."
"I can't ignore the fact that all of this seems so strange," Crisler said. "With the city being in such disarray, I'm not altogether surprised at such abrupt measures by council members. We've got health issues in city government, several diagnosed with strokes or hypertension. There's a cloud of stress over the city right now. Not just government, but over our citizens, as well."
What a great way to summarize all of the HOT GARBAGE that has been occurring as of late.