BRANDON, Miss. (WLBT) - The long-running saga between Pelahatchie Mayor Ryshonda Beecham and the town board of aldermen continues.
This time, that drama surrounds the appointment of a municipal clerk, or better, the lack thereof.
On October 14, Beechem was in Rankin County Circuit Court asking for a writ of mandamus requiring the board to fill the position.
A writ is issued by a court to require a lower government office to fulfill its duties.
The mayor said the board has refused to approve several nominees that she has recommended for the role.
Board members and others, though, say the mayor’s actions has led to the resignation of several employees, including two longtime clerks who had been with the town for years.
“Since she has taken over, we have lost five city attorneys, five deputy city clerks and several longtime staffers,” said Linda Adams, a longtime Pelahatchie resident and wife of board member Michael Adams. “That includes one deputy clerk who had 30 years and one clerk who had 13 years.”
Several board members and one of those clerks were at the circuit court Wednesday afternoon, but none were called into the courtroom. It appeared that only Beechem and her attorneys were allowed to enter.
WLBT also wasn’t allowed to see proceedings, due to Supreme Court COVID-19 mandates.
The appearance is the latest round of controversy between the mayor and board.
In January, the board refused to attend Beechem’s state of the town, according to a WLBT report.
And in February, Beechem filed a bill of exceptions asking the court to reinstate her pay, which the board cut in 2018.
The complaint was filed days after the board voted down her request to restore her salary and after members refused to approve her request for nearly $57,000 in back pay.
Currently, the mayor earns $250 a month. Prior to Beechem’s election, the position paid $1,000 a month. After getting in office, the board voted to increase Beechem’s salary to $1,200 monthly.
In 2018, citing a decline in revenues, the board voted to reduce Beechem’s pay by 79 percent and their pay by 50 percent. As a result, all board members and the mayor would earn $250 a month, Adams explained.
“All of the board members took a pay cut, so we would not have to lose staff,” Adams said.
And while Beechem said the decision unfairly reduced her pay, the board made the decision to ensure equinimity, meaning that all board members and the mayor would earn the same amount.
Pay cuts aside, Beecham also is claiming the city owes her nearly $57,000 in back pay for work performed between March 2018 and July 2019.
It was unclear what work the mayor performed during that time.
Minutes from the February 3, 2020 meeting showed that she asked the board to “discuss, consider and vote on payment” of that amount. However, members voted down the measure in a unanimous decision.
A second measure to restore Beechem’s salary also was voted down by unanimous vote.
Arguments surround why Beechem’s pay was cut.
Ira Singleton, a supporter of the mayor, believes the decision was likely racially motived. Singleton, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Rankin County, said he has helped raise money to cover Beechem’s legal costs.
“She’s the first Black mayor in Rankin County and is a female,” he said. “The board of aldermen are three white and two Black, and whenever they vote they are solidified.”
Adams, who has lived in Pelahatchie for 60 years, denies Singleton’s claim, pointing to the fact that both Black board members, one of whom is her husband, also voted to decrease the mayor’s salary.
Rather than race, Adams pointed to the mayor’s job performance, saying the she has failed to bring in new revenue to the city and has failed to pay its bills.
“She’s asking for $50,000, and we find out the bills are three months behind. Southern Pine said if they weren’t paid, they were going to turn (electricity to) the treatment system off. Insurance was late. We had to overnight our payment for bond insurance,” she said. “PERS said … they were behind.”
Michael Adams, who represents Ward One, said it’s because Beechem “came in and (tried to) change everything and be in charge.”
Pelahatchie has a mayor-board of aldermen form of government, often referred to as the “weak mayor” form. More than 95 percent of cities in the state have this set up, according to the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.
Under this form, mayors and board members share the duty in appointing and dismissing officials, such as city clerks.
Beechem, in a short interview on the courthouse steps, said she would like to see Pelahatchie’s form of government changed, and said it would be up to the people to make that change.
The hearing was before Judge John Emfinger. Emfinger is expected to hand down a ruling within 30 days, an attorney for Beechem says.