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October 7, 2012

After lawsuit with city, Jennings asks for another try

MERIDIAN — Budget restrictions aside, city officials are not likely to move forward with a recent proposal for a Promise Neighborhoods grant while there is an ongoing lawsuit between the city and one of the organizers of the proposed project.

    Randle Jennings, education chairman of the Meridian/Lauderdale County Chapter of the NAACP, along with John Harris, also a NAACP member, presented a proposal to the Meridian City Council on Tuesday to ask for $50,000 for part of the needed matching funds for a Department of Education Promise Neighborhoods grant.

    The grant would fund an after school program in Meridian for children 4 to 14 years of age. The council did not take action on the matter, but Councilman George Thomas said afterwards that there was likely no money to be found for the project, citing a tight budget year.

    Although it was not mentioned during the city council meeting, a lawsuit between the city and Jennings is still ongoing, according to court records.

    Jennings brought a similar proposal, one for children in pre-K through 5th grade, to the Meridian City Council in 2006. The council, which then included Harris, who represented Ward 5, voted unanimously in favor of the proposal and gave $12,500 to the program, which was operating under the name Real Life Junction, Inc.

    When other backers pulled out without contributing, Jennings was unable to proceed with the program. City officials asked Jennings to return the $12,500 because the program never got started and in Oct., 2007 sued him in county court for the funds. In a unanimous vote, the city council passed a motion to pursue recovery of the $12,500. Harris was still on the council at the time and voted in favor of the motion to recover the money.

       In June, 2010, Judge Frank Coleman issued a judgment granting summary judgment, finding that Jennings had breached his contract with the city because the program never materialized.

    "It is the opinion of the court, having considered all of the above, that the defendant is, as a matter of law, in direct breach of the terms of the contract between the parties hereto for expended funds for things not authorized and providing no services.

    "All funds allegedly paid by the defendant for salaries, would not be considered earned services, the program never having started and thus all funds expended would be due back to the city in accordance with the contract, including that amount which the defendant admits he is still holding," the court records said.

    The amount to which the judge referred is $4,800 which Jennings told the court he still had. He said the rest of the funds had been spent. Coleman ordered Jennings to pay that amount back immediately, but several months went by with no payment, according to court records.

    On April 21, 2011, Coleman gave Jennings 20 more days to pay the $4,800 or he would issue a bench warrant. On May 18, 2011, Coleman issued the bench warrant. On June 6, 2011, Jennings paid the $4,800.

    Prior to that, Coleman had ruled that the court did not have the authority to find the defendant in contempt of court for nonpayment of the remainder of the funds. However, he wrote the balance "will have to be pursued by the Plaintiff (the City) as any other collection on a judgment entered by the Court."

    According to Bill Ready Jr., the attorney now handling the case for the city of Meridian, Jennings still owes the city a little more than $18,500. That's after the payment of $4,800. The amount has grown to include penalties and court costs.

    Jennings said it was months after the ruling that he and his attorney learned of the court's finding. Moreover, he denies that he still owes the city any money. He said his critics do not want him to move forward with a program to help urban children.

    "Some people have an ax to grind because if you don't go conventional, the traditional route, you go against the grain," Jennings said. "I've been a college professor for 20 years. It doesn't surprise me that people would take measures to stop progress because they pretty much like to keep things the way they are."

    The lawsuit by the city was frivolous, he said.

    "But they had a right to because they gave me the funds and I had a right to find out why they wanted them back," Jennings said.

    Jennings said city officials never told him why they wanted their money back, but according to court records, when other funding sources fell through, Jennings had "no choice but to cease operation of the program. All preparations had been done," court records said. "All he lacked were students but he had to shut down because of a lack of funds to pay staff long-term."

    Jennings said he prepared for the program by reconfiguring Magnolia Community Center.

    "We set the staff up," Jennings said. "We were preparing to purchase other equipment. We were going to set that whole place up as a computer center at the Velma Young Magnolia Community Center."

    But children were never served in that particular program, so the city sought to recoup its funds. Jennings said he believes he does not owe the city any money beyond the $4,800 he has already paid.

    "Whatever you are telling me now about any other legal proceedings, I don't know anything about," Jennings said. "Whatever anybody else is telling you about any other legal proceedings, I don't know anything about and I don't have anything to hide."

    Asked why he went back to the city for support for a similar program that did not succeed in 2006, Jennings said he did so because he did not do anything wrong.

    "I've been honest and fair with them from day one," Jennings said. "I won't back down because of someone threatening me."

    Jennings said he feels strongly about helping young people trapped in poverty who end up incarcerated.

    "This is my cause. I've got to save these boys because I grew up in these streets and public housing just like they did but I see what's happening to them," Jennings said. "People think that they are just bad. No. They got pushed out."

    He will continue the fight, he said.

    "We weren't supposed to be bold enough to come back and ask again to save our children," Jennings said. "And that's what we did."

    Harris defended Jennings'  proposal to start a new program and he stands by his vote back in 2006 when he was on the city council.

    `"I voted for the program," Harris said. "I thought it was a good program. I think Mr. Jennings has rectified the problem with that."

    On Thursday, two days after he presented his new proposal to the Meridian City Council, activity on the lawsuit resumed in Lauderdale County Court.

    Ready filed a motion for the court to compel Jennings to produce financial records so that the city can collect the debt. On Friday, Judge Coleman ordered Jennings to appear in court on Oct. 29 to produce the records.

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