Budget Crisis Deepens | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Budget Crisis Deepens

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The Jackson City Council voted this week in a special meeting to reduce the pay of two rejected department heads to their salaries before they were promoted to interim heads. Meanwhile, State Auditor Phil Bryant has begun an informal review of the city budget.

The council, with only six members present, was on the verge of a 3-3 vote on the city's payroll Tuesday, which would have constituted a no vote on the entire payroll.

A majority of the council found the payroll more favorable after Councilman Marshand Crisler added an amendment to cut the men's pay. Both Charles Melvin and Todd Chandler were making around $80,000 before the council vote. City Council reduced Melvin's pay to $52,524 and Chandler's pay to $46,924.

"I just don't think these people, who were not approved as department heads, should be paid like department heads," Crisler said.

Melvin would not comment on the council cutting his pay. "Talk to them in there," he said, gesturing to council chambers. "I got nothing for you."

Last week, City Council voted to withhold pay from the two men altogether, and council also voted no confidence in City Attorney Sarah O'Reilly-Evans.

Last month, the council voted down Todd Chandler as fire chief, 20 months after Mayor Frank Melton named him interim fire chief. The council also rejected Charles Melvin as director of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Melvin served under Melton at the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, and he supervised the mayor's youth initiative, including the Wood Street Lawn Service.

After City Council rejected Chandler, Melton installed him as assistant fire chief and granted him authority over the fire department, and refers to him as "fire chief." After the council rejected Melvin, Melton made him an assistant chief administration officer in charge of parks and recreation.

Council members Margaret Barrett-Simon, Leslie McLemore, Crisler and Council President Ben Allen held a press conference last Thursday to explain their votes, which they said were driven by fear that payments to Melvin and Chandler could be illegal.

Allen explained that they voted on advice from his attorneys. "(My attorneys) are afraid that we, as approvers of the claims docket, may be getting into something that may not be easy to explain our way out of, even if it's done completely in ignorance," he said.

Allen quoted from state statute 21-39-9, which states that spending city funds not authorized by "an order entered upon the (council) minutes" is a misdemeanor, punishable by $500 and jail time or both. Government officials who violate the law can be removed from office upon conviction.

Crisler said good intentions are not a defense. "Let me tell you something: This is the state of Mississippi, and it doesn't understand anything about 'I didn't know.' Ignorance of the law is not an excuse. There's a lot of people sitting in jail right now because they were ignorant," he said.

The council majority expressed concern that Melvin's salary, for instance, might be pulled from parks and recreation, though he now serves in another department.

"We don't know for sure if they've (illegally transferred money)," Crisler said. "We don't know, and that's the concern. If they reached over into parks and recreation, took (Melvin's) salary and put it over in the CAO's office, then that's illegal, because it didn't come before us. We need to make a public statement that we're not in support of what's going on, because somebody's going to start asking questions real soon, and we need to be on record saying we had concerns."

Barrett-Simon said that with budget revisions so many months overdue, there was no way to know how funds might have been moved. "I shudder to think what might happen if (State Auditor) Phil Bryant walked in here today," she said.

Last Sunday, The Clarion-Ledger reported that Bryant had requested city budget documents for "review," though Bryant said he has not opened a formal investigation.

"I think he was asking for information on the recent confirmation hearings, but he got directed to personnel," Allen said. "Who knows what they asked for once they got to personnel?"

Melton told The Clarion-Ledger that he believed the council had called in Bryant. "It would have been nice if the ... council would have run that by me," Melton said.

Allen said he could not speak for other council members, but he did not think a member had invited Bryant, who may have learned about the controversy from the news.

"He's probably just doing his job. He doesn't need anybody to lead him everywhere," Allen said.

McLemore said Thursday that it is unprecedented to be so late into the fiscal year without budget revisions. The administration has already admitted that its expenditures will exceed the budget by $3.9 million.

"I've been on the council since 1999, and we've never been this late in the fiscal year where we have not had at least one budget revision. ... They keep putting us off. The last conversation we had about the budget was that skeletal outline on expenditures, and that was it," McLemore said, referring to a three-page administration document outlining hundreds of thousands of dollars in cuts to departments in one or two sentences.

Allen said that even if illegal budget transfers have not occurred, state law was clear that all departments must be directed by directors, interim directors or deputy directors. He urged Melton to comply with state law.

"The solution is very simple," Allen said. "Have either a director, an interim director or a deputy director sign off on every issue or order that comes through the department. That's not our opinion. That's the law. There no law that our attorneys can find that allows a CAO to sign off on every issue that happens within the department," Allen said.

The council majority also explained why they voted for a resolution expressing no confidence in O'Reilly-Evans.

"We were getting advice from our attorneys that we should not approve the payroll docket because it may not be legal, but we were getting advice from the city's legal department pooh-poohing that," Allen said. "I was told that I could vote on the school board issue, and I certainly can not vote on the school board issue. The school board votes on my contracts, and I'm told that I can vote on a school board issue, subject to a lawsuit?"

Allen recused himself from a council vote on the nomination of a JPS board nominee who could prove to be a crucial swing vote in awarding management of a $150 million bond. Last month, City Council members accused Melton's Chief of Staff Marcus Ward of threatening to pull School Board Vice President Jonathan Larkin's name for re-nomination if Larkin did not vote for Melton's preferred contractor. Larkin voted for a competing company, and Melton pulled his nomination. Ward denies the allegation.

Barrett-Simon accused O'Reilly-Evans of serving Melton rather than the city. "My fears were confirmed this past week when the city attorney said, 'I work at the will and pleasure of the (mayor).' As a council member, my question is: Why is there a confirmation process that involves the council ... if she serves only at the will and pleasure of the mayor?" Barrett-Simon asked.

Crisler said that the administration is so top heavy that it is hurting city services. "The main way of balancing this budget, the administration suggests, is by cutting more jobs. If we're cutting these lower jobs to pay these upper people, you are top-heavy, and that system will collapse. ... We have no people sitting at city desks now," Crisler said.

Carolyn Redd, who is Melton's sister-in-law and one of four assistant CAOs, asked Allen why the council could not address their concerns to Melton in private. Redd, who explained later that her duties as an assistant CAO included "marketing and public relations," does not report for any publication, and she was the only person to ask questions who was not a member of the press.

Allen explained that after months of discussion with Melton, he no longer felt that the mayor could be taken at his word.

"The day before (Melton) fired (former Parks and Recreation Director) Ramie Ford, he assured me Ramie was going to be re-hired," Allen said. "He assured me on four separate occasions that he would address the Todd Chandler situation ... and he refuses to have the hearing. ... I had (Melton) on the radio the other day, and he told me on the radio that he was going to bring Larkin up for school board re-appointment. Meanwhile, the day before, he sent a memo saying he wanted (Larkin) to be pulled. So which part (of the mayor's private conversations) do I believe, and which part do I not believe?

Redd asked Allen if he had never said anything that turned out to be false, but he dismissed the question with a wave of his hand.

Earler in the exchange, Allen said that he had heard Melton was planning to cut checks to the two men without council approval.

"Please advise him not to do that," Allen said. "That would be breaking the law."

Melton did not return calls.

McLemore said the greater issue is that Melton does not seem to understand that there are legal and constitutional limits to his power. "The city of Jackson did not elect a king. We didn't elect a czar. We didn't elect a pope. We elected a mayor and seven members of the city council, and it's a two way street. Right now, we're not witnessing the separation of powers, and we're not witnessing cooperation, because the mayor has decided that I'm going to do it my way or no way," McLemore said.

Previous Comments

ID
67720
Comment

One would think that FM would be really careful about what he says and does given that he had such narrow escapes recently. It appears to me he has learned nothing. I just hope the City survives this mess. The Council IMHO took the correct actions in denying those paychecks. I am just waiting to see what FM will do next to try to have his way. SORE may be a good attorney but if she is giving FM advice to do what he is doing maybe both will go down together. Good citizens keep on praying.

Author
jada
Date
2007-05-30T18:25:59-06:00
ID
67721
Comment

Last Sunday, The Clarion-Ledger reported that Bryant had requested city budget documents for “review,” though Bryant said he has not opened a formal investigation. “I think he was asking for information on the recent confirmation hearings, but he got directed to personnel,” Allen said. “Who knows what they asked for once they got to personnel?” Unfortunately, I figure Phil wants a 'review' so he can help Melton juggle the numbers to work and pass Council muster. Or we will see Parker-Weaver pushing votes for Bryant. Like the State cares about Jackson. They're as guilty as the 'mill street group' in protecting and enabling Melton and his failed decisions.

Author
pikersam
Date
2007-05-30T18:55:33-06:00
ID
67722
Comment

Found a couple of typos: “We don’t know for sure if they’ve (illegally transferred money),” Crisler said. “We don’t know, and that’s the concern. If they reached over into parks and recreation, took (Melvin’s) salary and put it over in the CAO’s office, then that’s illegal, because it didn’t come before us. We need to make a public statmeent that we’re not in support of what’s going on, because somebody’s going to start asking questions real soon, and we need to be on record saying we had concerns.” Crisler said that the administration is so top heavy that it is hurting city services. “The main way of balancing this budget, the administration suggests, is by cutting more jobs. If we’re cutting these lower jobs to pay these upper people, you are top-heavy, and that system will collapse. ... We have no people sitting at city desks now,” Cirsler said.

Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2007-05-30T19:26:17-06:00
ID
67723
Comment

The Clarion-Ledger is reporting that Melton vetoed the pay reduction, though it's not clear he has the legal authority to do so. Allen said he expects to have an answer on that in the next couple days, though Goliath quotes him later saying he has two AG opinions to back him up. Meanwhile, note what Melton said about his veto: "I have been advised that never in the history of the city of Jackson has a mayor's request that a department director be confirmed been denied," the veto states. And? That's not disputing the law, is it? Hill said that he would have to get legal advice to see whether the mayor's veto was valid. He will surely get that advice from Sarah O'Reilly-Evans. Allen is getting his advice from a private attorney. Melton, apparently not understanding that it is meaningless to veto a non-binding resolution, also vetoed the council's expression of no confidence in O'Reilly-Evans. Yes you do have confidence in her, dab nab it.

Author
Brian C Johnson
Date
2007-05-31T08:33:38-06:00
ID
67724
Comment

This is getting interestinger and interestinger. I don't think Melton cares whether those vetoes are legal or not. He's just trying to appease his supporters by looking super bad, like when he went to that gas station the other day after the manager shot those two robbers. C'mon now, what good is it for him to review the surveillance footage except for playing cop again? Just a little something for the WLBT cameras. WAPT was there but he wouldn't talk to them. It irked me to see him walking in there with the police chief walking behind him like we're in some sort of oppressed regime - not yet anyway.

Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2007-05-31T08:50:33-06:00

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