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Jackson trash: Can the mayor veto a no vote? That’s likely what a judge is going to decide

Published: Apr. 8, 2022 at 2:39 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The future of who picks up Jackson residents’ trash could hinge on whether the mayor can veto a no vote by the city council.

A status hearing was held Friday in Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s case against the Jackson City Council.

The decision comes a week and a day after Judge Jess Dickinson handed down his initial ruling in the case, and a week after he amended that ruling removing what has since become a controversial footnote.

It also comes about a week after Richard’s Disposal has been collecting residential garbage in the city. The council has voted down contracts with Richard’s six times.

The mayor awarded a contract to the New Orleans-based firm as part of his previous emergency declaration, and the firm is now working without council approval.

Dickinson called the status hearing to speak with attorneys about whether the veto question should be answered.

“I included in the opinion, in that case, that set forth what I thought was a possibility – the possibility for the lawyers to argue as to whether or not a mayor’s veto would have an effect when the council votes to reject a contract proposed by the executive branch,” he said.

“There are good arguments on both sides of that question, and I hope to hear the position of the parties today.”

At the center of the controversy is a footnote included in Judge Dickinson’s March 31 ruling.

The ruling stated that contracts are not valid unless they’re approved by the council.

However, a footnote included in the ruling said the mayor could veto the council’s decision to vote down the contract, the council could override the veto and he could challenge their decision in court.

Judge appears to give mayor a way to keep Richard's emergency contract in place, even without...
Judge appears to give mayor a way to keep Richard's emergency contract in place, even without the council's full support.(WLBT)

The council has voted multiple times to reject a proposal from the mayor to bring on Richard’s Disposal. At a special emergency meeting last week, the council twice rejected awarding a one-year emergency contract to the firm, decisions that the mayor vetoed.

Attorney Deshun Martin argued if the judge rules the mayor can veto items that are voted down by the council, it would be “a transfer of power like no other mayor or executive in the state has ever had previously.”

“In essence, the mayor claims he can veto a no vote, a no-bill, a non-true bill, a negative and run the city by (minority) rule. This would allow the mayor to veto and void city council approval on any contract that there was not a supermajority of councilmembers to override,” he said. “This is not the law, judge. This would give the mayor the authority no mayor has ever had before... It takes us down a rabbit hole.”

Martin read one court opinion from 1898, as well as several attorney general opinions backing up his stance.

“But you also understand that the judicial branch of government, the courts, aren’t bound by attorney general opinions. They are just opinions until the judiciary rules on it,” Dickinson said. “I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m just saying that I can’t ground a decision in this case (based) on what the attorney general’s office says... I’ve got to come to the final place of determining what the law requires.”

Martin referred to Mississippi Code Section 21-8-17, which states that the mayor can veto ordinances adopted by the council. He said something vote down by the council is not adopted.

Dickinson, though, said, “every action by the council is an ordinance.”

“So, when they vote it’s an ordinance. The question to me has never been ‘was it an ordinance,’ the question has been ‘is it one that was adopted,’” the judge said, speaking to John Scanlon, one of the council’s attorneys. “Unless you change my mind, or someone changes my mind, not 21-8-17, but the statute that defines an ordinance says an ordinance is ABCD or any other action by the council... When they vote to reject a contract that’s an action by the council, isn’t it?”

“When the city council held a meeting... took a vote, and they voted against it. Do you agree that’s an ordinance?” Dickinson asked.

“No, sir. I do not agree that’s an ordinance, respectively,” Scanlon said.

“You’ll have to convince me it’s not because the statute pretty clearly says any action taken by the council is an ordinance,” the judge responded.

Lumumba attorney Felecia Perkins, meanwhile, argued that there are no pending issues before the court and that the question of the mayor’s veto is a separate action.

Attorneys for the mayor filed a motion in Hinds County Circuit Court earlier this week seeking to determine whether the mayor could veto a no vote. That case was transferred back to Dickinson.

“A final judgment has been entered, and you cannot amend an answer after the judgment has been entered,” she said. “And we don’t understand exactly the position of the city council when they say they’re trying to relate back to something the court has already adjudicated.”

Judge Jess Dickinson hears arguments during a status conference regarding the city's...
Judge Jess Dickinson hears arguments during a status conference regarding the city's waste-hauling contracts.(WLBT)

Dickinson asked what issue she was referring to.

Perkins said it was the issue of whether the Richard’s contract was valid.

Dickinson, though, said the issue “as I understand it is the question of whether or not the mayor can veto a vote of the council to reject the contract.”

Perkins, though, said that question was never brought before the court.

“It’s not before the court. The court has already entered its final judgment on the pleadings before the court,” she said. “The only thing that can happen after a final judgment is rule 59 or rule 60 motion and nothing has been filed, other than the motion to alter the judgment that was filed by Waste Management that the court has already ruled on.”

Rule 59 is filing a motion seeking a new trial or amending or altering a judgment, according to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute. Rule 60 is filing a motion for a new judgment, arguing there was a mistake in the initial, new evidence has come to light, and other factors, the Cornell website states.

In his April 1 order, Dickinson vacated his March 31 ruling, including the footnote outlining the mayor’s veto powers, and pointed to two ordinances governing the mayor’s ability to veto council votes.

Dickinson said the footnote was based on Mississippi Code Section 21-8-47 but pointed out there was a second code section, which provides for a mayoral veto and a council’s override.

However, the judge said that because the mayor did not ask the question about veto power in his initial findings and he should not have addressed it in his initial order.

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