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Jackson City Council asking a judge to determine whether the mayor can veto a no vote... again

Published: May. 12, 2022 at 10:38 AM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A new legal front has been opened in the city of Jackson’s battle over who will collect residents’ trash.

Wednesday, the city council filed a suit in Hinds County Chancery Court asking for the court to determine whether the mayor can veto a negative vote of the legislative body, and whether a negative vote counts as an official action.

The suit comes just days after Hinds County Circuit Judge Faye Peterson refused to answer the question in circuit court, saying it should be answered by the judge who initially brought the veto question up – Judge Jess Dickinson.

“Allowing the mayor to veto a negative action of the council and then implement what the council voted not to do would give the mayor legislative power,” attorneys Deshun Martin and John Scanlon wrote. “The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that the executive branch (the mayor) only has a qualified destructive legislative power and never creative legislative power.”

The veto question has been at the heart of the city’s trash controversy since March 31, when Dickinson, a special judge appointed to preside over a previous related case, included a footnote in his ruling saying the mayor hypothetically could veto a council no vote.

At a meeting on April 1, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba vetoed the council’s decision to deny awarding an emergency trash-hauling contract to Richard’s Disposal.

At the time, Lumumba cited the judge’s ruling, and Richard’s has been picking up trash in Jackson since.

Ward 6 Councilman Aaron Banks laughed at the mayor when he read his veto message at the meeting.

“Everybody knows from the president all the way down, you can’t veto a no vote,” he said. “It’s not even an item. It’s dead. How in... Heaven, do you veto something that’s dead?”

On the same day as that meeting, Dickinson vacated his initial ruling including the footnote, saying he should have never addressed the veto question because it had not been put before him. However, he did say that the court recognized state statutes that allowed and precluded mayors from vetoing negative actions.

Later, the chancellor refused requests to answer whether the mayor had veto power over a no vote.

Dallas Breen, executive director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development at Mississippi State University, said he’s unaware of any precedent for a mayor vetoing a negative vote.

“There’s just not precedent, at least in my time, working with local governments across the state,” he said. “To my knowledge, Justice Dickinson... I believe even stated this hasn’t been ruled on in the state of Mississippi.”

Breen said if the courts do rule in favor of the mayor, it could “essentially give the mayor some legislative creativity or legislative authority in an indirect sense. And so, if a council, as a body, votes and the majority decline or say no to an action, a ruling like this could hypothetically lead to the mayor being able to override that authority and then essentially create legislation or create ordinances.”

“From a 30,000-foot macro level, from my basic understanding, it could essentially create a more powerful executive figure, particularly in the mayor-council form of government.”

Jackson operates under the mayor-council form of government, which is in place in 10 municipalities in the state, according to Stennis Institute data. Under that form, legislative authority is exercised by the council, while executive authority is held by the mayor.

The council filed suit in circuit court to have the question answered, but on May 5, Peterson punted the case back to the chancery.

The council also is asking the court to prevent the mayor from acting after vetoing a negative vote.

“Allowing the mayor to act on a negative veto would blur the lines between the executive and legislative branches causing irreparable harm by giving greater power to the mayor than is afforded to him by the law,” attorneys argue.

“The mayor’s veto of the negative action takes away the council’s legislative power and the ability of the majority to run the city.”

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