Meridian Star

October 25, 2013

Ordinances draw vetoes from mayor

By Terri Ferguson Smith / tsmith@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Mayor Percy Bland has vetoed two new ordinances recently passed by the Meridian City Council.

    On Thursday Bland vetoed the council's "citizens comments" ordinance and the new rules for "temporary employees."

    The council passed both ordinances at its last meeting on Oct. 15.

    The council's policy change for temporary hires would mean that new and existing jobs for department heads and the Chief Administrative Officer must be brought to the City Council for confirmation within 90 days of the date of the appointment. The council could grant an extension if it chose to, but if the mayor does not bring the confirmation to the council, and is not granted an extension, the newly appointed temporary department head or CAO could have their salary suspended by the council. Department heads jobs do not fall under the purview of the city's Civil Service Department.

    For jobs that are under civil service, the council changed the rules so that even temporary hires must go through civil service hiring procedures after 90 days. The council's new rule calls for new temporary employee to be tested and interviewed for the job; and the job will have to be advertised within 90 days of the date of the temporary employee's hiring. If that doesn't happen, the council could suspend the employee's pay.

    Bland said he vetoed those new rules because they are contrary to "both Mississippi statutory law and Attorney General opinion." Furthermore, Bland said, the rules are lacking sound legal foundation,  and were not drafted by the city attorney or provided to the city attorney for review. Bland said he and Michael Goggans, city attorney, only received a copy of the amendment just before the city council meeting.

    Bland reiterated concerns about the temporary employees he voiced last week at the council meeting. Because there are a number of employees who having been working as temporary employees for many years, they will now have to go through civil service procedures.

    "Some of those people go back as far as 1989," Bland said. "Those positions are going to have to be put out for test, for interview."

    Many of those employees are from departments that will be understaffed if there is a gap in staffing, Bland said.

    "Those people that have been working their jobs of course know how to do their jobs," Bland said, "but they are going to have to back through the entire process to get that job."

    That could impair the work of the city, Bland said.

    "The disruption of city services and for the fact that the city council is overstepping its bounds in this policy, in the department heads and in the civil service positions, with the policy itself," Bland said. "They control the pursestrings, but they are superseding civil service and overstepping their legislative powers of government."

    Ward Two Councilman Dustin Markham, who is an attorney, said he drafted the temporary employee policy and made adjustments to the citizens comments .

    "The Meridian city council has the legislative authority to govern how the city's money is spent," Markham said regarding the temporary employees rules.

    "We approve the entire budget; the mayor's budget as well," Markham said.

    Bland's other veto on Thursday is in objection to the council's wording of the citizens comments portion of the agenda. The council voted to take citizens comments off the agenda in May because some people were said to be abusing the privilege by bringing concerns not relevant to city business.

    The council drafted new rules earlier this month which spelled out how a person can get on the agenda and other guidelines to follow.

    "If it is deemed that the topic a citizen wants to discuss does not pertain to the business of the city of Meridian, then the citizen will not be placed on the agenda and will not be given the opportunity to address the city council."

    The new rules also spell out actions that will be taken if the person violates the rules of debate, manner of addressing the council, or decorum.

    In his veto of the citizens comments rules, Bland said the amendment "places impermissible time, place and manner restrictions on first amendment free speech likely resulting in the city being sued and having to pay damages. It is, on its face, unconstitutional."

    That amendment was also given to Bland and Goggans just prior to the council meeting during which it was adopted, Bland said.

    "The first thing is, it was not drafted by the city attorney. Both of these ordinances were given to me right before I sat down at the city council meeting," Bland said.

    Bland said the 15 minute time limit for all citizens comments is too restrictive. He agrees with the three minute time limit per person, but he said he believes that more time should be given so that more than five citizens can make comments. Bland said he does not believe that more than 10 people would ask to make comments at most meetings.

    "I'm in full agreement with them and I'm glad that they are moving to citizens comments, but it just maxes out at five people and I'm not in agreement with that," Bland said.

    Because it does not allow more than five people to speak during the citizens comment portion of the meeting, Bland said it is unconstitutional.

    Markham disagreed, and said there is no requirement that the council must include citizens' comments on the agenda.

    "There can be restrictions as long as it is reasonable and content neutral," Markham said. "Our ordinance is content neutral."

    Legal fees from Goggans were also discussed during Thursday's work session, Bland said. The matter came up last week when the council questioned Goggans about a $16,000 invoice from his office. His contract with the city is $5,000 a month, but he sent a separate bill for $16,000 this month for approval, which raised questions by the council.

    Bland said Goggans and the council discussed it again Thursday to come to an agreement about what legal work falls under routine legal proceedings and legal work that goes beyond routine.

    "They came to a better understanding of what is going to be customary," Bland said. "The rest of it deals with things that don't come up under routine business. They worked out what they think should be routine and what should not be routine. He (Goggans) is going to look at amending this last bill."