‘Grave and costly mistake’ | Council votes down trash contract twice, rescinds mayor’s emergency order

Published: Mar. 8, 2022 at 1:40 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) -Jackson’s trash controversy continues, with the city council voting down a motion to ratify the mayor’s emergency contract with Richard’s Disposal not once, but twice.

The question remains, though, whether the decision is more than a symbolic vote.

The mayor did not place the item on the council, and City Attorney Catoria Martin and Deputy Attorney Terry Williamson advised council members the vote likely would have no legal effect.

“Should it be deemed to have legal effect, understand that the notice to proceed has already been issued,” Williamson said. “The vendor has already begun, and by doing this, the council is essentially applying a startup cost that need not apply.”

The council also was advised that if it did not allow Richard’s agreement to go forward, the city could be required to pay Richard’s startup costs for mobilizing.

Under terms of the agreement, Richard’s would incur mobilization fees itself, unless actions of the city prevented it from starting on April 1.

The council asked repeatedly for the startup costs, but the administration could not provide them.

We reached out to Justin Vicory, the mayor’s executive writer, who also did not have the costs. He said he would pass our inquiry along that WLBT was welcome to file an open record request to obtain that information.

Officials with Richard’s were not present at the meeting and were not invited, according to Martin.

“We are about to have a startup cost and nobody in the city knows what that startup cost is going to be?” Ward Six Councilman Aaron Banks asked. “As a startup cost, we have no idea what that is... and the reason I’m voting this down is because I don’t know what the startup cost is.”

The city could be on the hook for startup costs for the Richard's Disposal contract if the firm...
The city could be on the hook for startup costs for the Richard's Disposal contract if the firm is not allowed to begin work on April 1.(WLBT)

In all, three votes were taken: two to ratify the one-year contract with Richard’s, and one to end the mayor’s emergency declaration.

A motion to ratify the Richard’s contract was voted down twice. Meanwhile, a motion to discontinue the mayor’s emergency order was approved on a 4-1-1 vote. In that case, Council members Ashby Foote, Kenneth Stokes, Vernon Hartley, and Aaron Banks voted in favor. Councilwoman Angelique Lee abstained and Councilman Brian Grizzell voted in opposition.

The votes come less than a month after Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba declared a state of emergency over trash collections and after he entered a one-year emergency contract with the New Orleans-based Richard’s on Feb. 17.

Since then, items to approve the contract have been placed on the council at least twice. However, each time they were removed prior to a vote.

Foote added the item to the agenda for Tuesday’s special meeting so council members’ voices could be heard, he said.

“It’s been on the agenda several times. Once it was put on by (Councilwoman Virgi) Lindsay, but she pulled it, and once put on by the mayor and he pulled it as well,” Foote said. “I think it’s healthy for the council to get a vote and see where it goes from there. "

“We have too many other issues we need to address, like crime and clean water, and this is taking too much of our time.”

City Attorney Catoria Martin told the council it did not have the statutory authority to place a contract on the agenda for a vote, something that is reserved for the administration.

Banks, though, said an attorney general’s opinion stated the city council could place a contract on the agenda, but the mayor had the power to veto the board’s decision.

Banks was referring to an attorney general’s opinion sought by the late Chokwe Lumumba, the current mayor’s father, who was on the Jackson City Council at the time.

Lumumba had asked the attorney general whether the council could enter into a professional contract with a budget consultant.

According to the opinion, the council may not enter contracts alone, but may pass an ordinance, resolution or order authorizing the municipality to enter into a professional services contract for such purpose.”

It goes on to state that upon the passage, the mayor must “take appropriate action to comply with the ordinance or order. Of course, the mayor may veto the action, which in turn, may be overridden by the council.”

A copy of the opinion was provided by Banks, with the councilman having highlighted certain sections.

Either way, the council voted down the trash contract each time on a 4-1-1 vote.

Voting against the contract were Foote, along with Councilmen Aaron Banks, Kenneth Stokes, and Vernon Hartley. Also each time, Lee voted to ratify the agreement and Grizzell voted to abstain.

Immediately following the vote, Banks, who represents Ward 6, called for a motion to reconsider.

“I would advise you against this because it is clear you are purposely trying to vote down this contract twice to keep it from coming back to you,” Martin said prior to the vote. “And that is illegal, and you’ve been given that legal advice from more than one attorney at this point.”

Banks called on the motion to reconsider, saying that if the measure is voted down twice at the same meeting, it cannot be brought back again for another vote for the next year under city code.

An internal memo provided by a private attorney, though, seems to contradict Banks’ claims. The county previously brought on attorney Roy Campbell with the Bradley Arant law firm to address several questions with the current Richard’s contract and the RFP process.

According to Campbell, the two-vote rule applies to items brought up at the same meeting and would not apply to items being brought up at a subsequent meeting.

The motion to reconsider was approved 4-2, with Foote, Banks, Hartley, and Stokes voting in favor.

Prior to the second vote on the contract, the mayor thanked the city attorney for her advice. “You’ve done your job. I just want to encourage you in that way.”

Hartley, meanwhile, said the current situation was not an emergency, but the result of poor planning and poor motives.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Martin interrupted, pointing her finger at Hartley. “Do you know how much work I spent on that RFP? For you to say that I have purposely wasted time...”

Lee, who was serving as council president, gaveled down Martin... “Thank you, Attorney Martin... I understand.”

“That is not accurate,” Martin said, pounding the podium with her fist. “That is not accurate.”

City Attorney Catoria Martin leaves meeting

Martin left council chambers. As the media followed her out, she was joined by Chief of Staff Safiya Omari and other mayoral staffers who blocked the media from filming her.

The council voted down the contract again, also on a 4-1-1 vote.

“Emergencies that I’ve seen working solid waste involve natural disasters, trees and roads and so forth. And then the mayor (being) given permission to go out and pick someone to (alleviate) that emergency,” Hartley said after Martin left. “We have self-created emergencies here. This is not a natural disaster. This is not an earthquake. This is not a tornado. It’s not a hurricane,” he said. “We have to do a better job of managing.”

The council again denied ratifying the contract on a 4-1-1 vote.

Ward 4 Councilman Brian Grizzell said it was very clear what colleagues were doing and that they were making a “grave and costly mistake.”

Lumumba and attorneys for the city also told the council that their decision Tuesday could be a costly one for Jackson.

Under the terms of the agreement, if Richard’s is not allowed to begin collections on April 1, the city would be required to reimburse the company for startup costs.

The contract includes no startup costs if the company is allowed to move forward, the mayor explained.

“Just as a matter of record, no it does not have a startup cost unless the council chooses in this fashion to harm the vendor, based on their detrimental reliance... That they detrimentally relied, based on this city’s actions... therefore, they invested money on the front end,” he said. “Your choice in doing what you’re doing has allowed them to incur costs. That is when it will be applied, not at the issuance of this contract.”

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