June 9, 2017 11:30:07 AM
Alex Holloway - [email protected]
An ongoing series of developments, including conflicting board votes and accusations of an illegal meeting, is pitting Aberdeen's city government against itself in a struggle over who is the city electric department head.
The recent round of troubles was set in motion last year when aldermen voted to fire former Aberdeen Electric Department manager Jerry Ledbetter. The department went without a general manager until last month, when aldermen voted to hire Brian Sanders as the new department head. Sanders began working for the city two weeks ago. Now, depending on whether Mayor Maurice Howard or certain aldermen are speaking, Sanders is either still the manager or fired.
Aldermen knotted 2-2 on a vote to fire Sanders and hire Richard Smith on Tuesday. Howard broke the tie in favor of the action. Ward 2 Alderman Lady Garth and Ward 5 Alderman Jim Buffington voted in favor of firing Sanders, while Ward 3 Alderman David Ewing and Ward 4 Alderman Brunson Odom opposed. Ward 1 Alderman Alonzo Sykes was not present at the time of that vote.
Ewing, speaking to The Dispatch on Thursday, said the vote took place within the first 10 minutes of Tuesday's meeting. He said Aldermen voted 3-2 -- along the same lines but with Sykes then present and voting with Ewing and Odom -- to reinstate Sanders in a second vote held near the end of Tuesday's meeting.
Aldermen attempted to meet again on Thursday to ratify Sanders' reinstatement, but neither the mayor nor a quorum of the board attended.
Who's in charge?
Questions linger as to whether Aberdeen is paying two general managers for the electric department.
Ewing said he doesn't believe the city is, and he hopes the matter will be discussed at Tuesday's regular board meeting.
"That was my concern, but as of right now, we made a vote within the last part of the board meeting--three of us voted to rehire (Sanders)," Ewing said. "But he wasn't fired so it's not like we're rehiring. Right now, we're just trying to move forward."
The mayor said the motion to reinstate Sanders was presented while a motion to adjourn was on the table, and thus invalid.
Some of his aldermen disagree.
"They hired Mr. Smith and we reinstated Mr. Brian Sanders," Odom told The Dispatch on Wednesday.
Howard said the city only has one general manager because Sanders was given a termination notice on Wednesday. He said Smith was being drug tested on Thursday and will start on Monday.
Samona Johnson is acting as interim manager for the electric department.
Buffington and Garth could not be reached for comment. The Dispatch also could not reach Smith or Sanders.
Mayor: 'The lawyer is incompetent'
Sykes, Ewing and Odom called the special meeting Thursday to again vote in favor of naming Sanders general manager of Aberdeen Electric Department. However, without Howard in attendance, Sykes, the city's vice mayor, would have to preside over the meeting and would not count toward a quorum.
Howard refused to attend Thursday's meeting and accused the aldermen of attempting to meet illegally. State law allows aldermen to call a meeting, he said, but the city's special charter gives that right exclusively to the mayor.
"There's nowhere in our special charter that declares that any aldermen can call a special called meeting," Howard said. "The only time we use state statute in the city of Aberdeen is when the statute has been adopted by the board of aldermen or if our special charter is silent on that particular topic."
Howard said the board met under the "illegitimate" advice of city attorney Bob Faulks, who suggested they could meet under state statute.
"The lawyer is incompetent," Howard told The Dispatch.
Faulks, however, contended Howard is not reading from the most recent version of the city charter.
"The mayor has been quoting from the old special charter which (only) gave the mayor authority to call a special called meeting," he said. The mayor is apparently not aware that the charter has been amended from time-to-time, and the last time the charter was amended was in 2008. One of the provisions in the amendment specifically authorized or adopted the statute where two aldermen may call a special-called board meeting."
A federal lawsuit looms over the city's internal conflict over who leads the electric department.
Jim Waide, a Tupelo attorney representing Ledbetter, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi in Aberdeen on Monday. The state Equal Employment Opportunity Commission previously heard Ledbetter's complaint and permitted him to sue.
The suit claims Ledbetter, who is white, was fired due to racial discrimination because he attempted to make black customers pay their bills. He is seeking damages as determined by a jury and reinstatement to his former position.
Ledbetter's actions agitated black citizens, who complained to aldermen and the mayor, according to the suit.
Aldermen voted 3-2 on June 7, 2016, to fire Ledbetter. The vote fell along racial lines, with three black aldermen -- Sykes, Garth and Ewing -- voting in favor of the action and two white aldermen -- Odom and Buffington -- opposing it. Ledbetter had held the position since 2010.
The suit claims the city did not follow the disciplinary system in its employee handbook and didn't warn Ledbetter of issues with his performance before the vote to fire him.
A report in the Monroe Journal said aldermen dissolved the manager position after firing Ledbetter.
The city instead hired one white employee and two black employees to take over Ledbetter's former duties. The suit claims the white employee continued to perform his previous job, while the two black hires took over Ledbetter's duties.
"In effect, (Ledbetter's) job duties were taken over by black persons," the complaint says.
The suit also notes that Sanders, the next manager hired after Ledbetter, is white.
City officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.