By Terri Ferguson Smith / email@example.com
The Meridian Star
What started as the city of Meridian's attempt to collect a debt related to a failed youth program resulted in jail for the program's leader.
Randle Jennings, who has twice brought youth development programs to city officials, was ordered to appear in court for a judgment debtor exam to produce financial records so the city could collect the remaining funds that it granted to him for an after-school youth program in 2006 that never got off the ground.
At that time, Jennings asked for funding for a program for children in Pre-K through fifth grade, from the Meridian City Council. The Council 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 June, 2010, Judge Frank Coleman found that Jennings had breached his contract with the city.
"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.
Since Jennings acknowledged that he still had $4,800 left at that time, Coleman ordered him to pay that amount back immediately, but it was about a year before Jennings did so — after Coleman issued a bench warrant.
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."
Pointing out the judge's words that he "did not have the authority to find the defendant in contempt of court for nonpayment of the remainder of the funds," Jennings said that he does not believe the court had the authority to file contempt charges Monday when he did not produce the documents ordered by the court. Jennings represented himself in the court appearance on Monday.
Part of collecting the remaining balance, which now totals more than $18,000 because of penalties and court costs, is determining the extent of Jennings' assets. Coleman issued an order earlier this month that told Jennings to bring to court all of his financial records.
In court Monday, Jennings told Bill Ready Jr., the attorney handling the case for the city, that he did not bring the documents because, "I thought we had covered it." He also added that he did not have adequate time to prepare the documents. He received the notice from the court on Oct. 18 to appear on Oct. 29 with the documents.
When Ready asked him further about the amount of time he needed, Jennings said he was refusing to provide the documents.
"We thought he had already resolved this," Jennings said.
At that point Ready left the courtroom to get Judge Coleman, whose presence had not been required up until then.
"Is it true that you have refused to supply the documents?" Coleman asked Jennings.
"Yes," Jennings said. "Your honor, I thought this matter was closed."
Coleman told Jennings his refusal to obey the court's order to produce financial records placed him in contempt of court and he would go to jail until he produced the records.
"You hold the keys to get out of jail," Coleman said.
Coleman told Jennings if he sat in jail a year, there was nothing he, the judge, could do about it until Jennings complied with the court order.
There is no bail set in contempt violations.
"The city is in the process of following the law in an attempt to collect the remainder of the money owed to the city," Ready said later Monday.
Ready said state statutes and the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure have a specific process that gives any plaintiff that has a money judgment against a defendant the means to collect that debt. The procedure he is following, he said, is one he has used many times in the past.
Jennings recently went to the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors and the Meridian City Council to ask for funding for a similar after-school program, but neither entity pledged support.