Okolona snags on city judge appointment

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OKOLONA – A newly elected board voted to change their appointment for Okolona Municipal Judge, but the move has been vetoed by the mayor, prompting aldermen to seek an Attorney General’s opinion on the veto power of the mayor.

Okolona Mayor Louise Cole vetoed a 5-1 decision by the Okolona City Council July 2 to appoint attorney Sumeka Thomas as Municipal Judge and has named herself judge in the interim. Thomas was the city’s public defender and would have replaced longtime Municipal Judge Kenneth Mayfield.

Minutes following executive session to discuss personnel matters reflect a motion by Ward 4 Alderman Regina Pickens and a second by Ward 5 Alderman Mary Gates to appoint Thomas as municipal judge. Ward 1 Alderman Kenneth McVay, Ward 2 Alderman Bennett Moore and Ward 3 Alderman Eldridge Lowe supported the motion. Ward 6 Alderman Anthony Floyd voted against the appointment.

Gates and Pickens are the city’s newest aldermen and were seated at swearing in ceremonies July 1.

This wasn’t a move against Thomas, she is a very capable attorney,” said Cole. “Judge Mayfield has held the post and has done a good job and I didn’t see the need to make these changes. Everything was done openly and now is the time to move forward.”

Cole said she researched her authority prior to her veto and would not have made these decisions if she did not feel they were legal and within the scope of her office.

Technically, the city’s charter is silent on this matter and if it does not deny the mayor that right, I feel I have the authority,” said Cole. “I know I share the board’s vision for this community and we all want what is best for our community. I stand by my decision and I know there are board members who will stand by theirs.”

Cole said during the interim, and again citing city code, she will serve as municipal judge until an appointment is made.

City Attorney Gene Barton was asked by four aldermen to seek an Attorney General’s opinion on the mayor’s authority to veto the board’s decision and if the mayor can serve as city judge.

As I read it, the statute provides she has the authority to veto and it is effective for 10 days,” said Barton. “The confusion is the city’s charter was adopted in 1870 and there is a section that was annotated in 1916 saying that right may or may not have been repealed.”

Barton did point out the mayor’s veto could be over-ridden by a two-thirds majority, or a 4-2 vote, of the board.

Barton also said he will be asking for direction from the Attorney General on the mayor’s ability to serve at municipal judge.

Barton said as city attorney he represents both aldermen and the mayor and advises the city on points of law.

I think it is a fair statement to say there is some ambiguity or unclearness on if the mayor has these rights,” said Barton. “I would think if the mayor has veto authority the board would most likely have over-ride authority.”

Barton said an Attorney General’s opinion would be returned in one to four weeks.

Attorney Kenneth Mayfield has served at Okolona Municipal Judge for 10 years. He is also licensed to practice in Tennessee and has an office in Memphis. A little over a year ago Cole said she approved Mayfield’s decision to appoint Tupelo Municipal Judge Dan Davis to serve in Mayfield’s absence.

Aldermen could call a special meeting to vote on the matter. The next regular city board meeting will be August 13 at the Rockwell Auditorium in downtown Okolona.

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