Council members bickered Monday afternoon over Mayor Frank Melton's decision to appoint Chief Administrative Officer Robert Walker and City Attorney Sarah O'Reilly-Evans to run the city while he recovers from surgery in Texas.
Melton underwent triple bypass surgery last week in Tyler, Texas, and was scheduled to leave the hospital on Tuesday. There is no set date for his return to Jackson, however, and the recovery time from bypass surgery ranges from several weeks to months. Some council members argue that Melton skirted state law by appointing two non-elected officials to serve in his stead instead of appointing an elected council member.
"The mayor has not really designated anyone from the City Council to serve as acting mayor, and as I read the ordinance under the statute, it is very clear to me that the intent was to have someone from the council be designated by the mayor to serve in an acting capacity until the mayor is well," said Ward 2 Councilman Leslie McLemore.
State law, specifically 21-8-19, states that when the mayor is prevented from "attending to the duties of his office," he will "appoint a member of council" to assume those duties.
Council President Ben Allen said he considered it a non-issue because he did not believe the mayor would be gone for more than a week or two.
"I stopped by and (visited Melton). He expects to be back on the job in a couple of weeks. He looked great. … I think it's a dead issue," Allen said.
Nevertheless, Ward 6 Councilman Marshand Crisler said he worried that the city was in violation of state law.
"Reading the statute verbatim, it does indicate that once the mayor is determined to be unavailable then he will appoint a council member, then after 60 days the council has a role to appoint an interim mayor. That is clear. What it doesn't say anywhere in here is anything about the chief administrative officer (running the city)," Crisler said
O'Reilly-Evans said Melton's choice to make Walker and her heads of the executive was logical, since the CAO and city attorney deal with the daily affairs of the mayor's office anyway.
"The CAO is responsible for the day-to-day activities of the government and the department. It has been the policy of this administration and most other administrations that prior to the mayor signing off on documents, that legal view the documents, initial the documents, et cetera," O'Reilly-Evans said.
Crisler replied that the statute didn't allow the city attorney to head the executive branch whether it was logical or not.
"Yes, but you have to agree that this statute, verbatim, does not allow for you to adopt the role. It's clear that only a council member can stand in stead of the mayor," Crisler said.
Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes argued that the wording of the statute meant that it only came into effect after 60 days.
"It must be 60 days before we can be talking about picking a council member or something, but that's the first step—to get past those 60 days," Stokes said. "As of right now, (Melton) has his wits. He's not asleep, dead or crazy. He just had heart surgery, which did not affect his brain."
However, the law does not state that it comes into effect only after 60 days. Instead, it states that City Council can take independent action to appoint a mayor only after 60 days, unless the mayor is incapable of making the appointment himself. Again, the law states that the mayor will appoint "a member of council" to act in his place.
McLemore said he was astounded that Allen and Stokes were shirking their responsibilities as elected officials.
"The mayor is incapacitated. He had bypass heart surgery. He's not in Jackson now. He's not in City Hall; he's not in charge of this city. The intention of the Legislature was to have an elected official, and neither Mr. Walker, nor Ms. O'Reilly-Evans is elected. … Mr. President, how can you say it's not an issue when you just said you visited with him in a hospital room in Tyler, Texas?"
Allen grew incredulous: "If the mayor has heart surgery, and he's going to be back at work a week later, the intent of the law is to find someone to replace him?"
"The intent of the law was that the mayor designate someone to serve in his absence. The mayor is absent, and he is going to be incapacitated for several weeks, Mr. President," McLemore responded. "I don't know why we don't want to live up to our responsibility."
With Allen siding with Stokes, Councilman Charles Tillman and Councilman Frank Bluntson, opposition to the appointments is in the minority and cannot overrule Allen's decision to quash the topic—which he did at the Tuesday council meeting after Crisler, McLemore and Ward 7 Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon repeated their concerns.
"OK, thank you. And now we go to (agenda) item No. 26…." Allen said on Tuesday, barely acknowledging the opposition.
Jackson resident LaRhonda Odom said she was furious at what she described as the council allowing the mayor to skirt the law.
"The mayor appears to be breaking the law, and he continues to just get away with it. The council just lets him get away with it," Odom said.
McLemore said he would ask Attorney General Jim Hood to interpret the statute, but Crisler said he had little hope that Hood would get involved.
"I don't think Hood will want to weigh in on this," Crisler said.