JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – Two former Canton Municipal Utilities commissioners have scored a major victory in the state’s highest court, with justices agreeing they had been improperly removed from office.
On Thursday, the Mississippi Supreme Court nullified the Canton Board of Aldermen’s decision to remove L.C. Slaughter and Isiac Jackson from office, in violation of state statute, saying the two never received valid notice and did not have an opportunity to be heard prior to their termination.
“Mississippi case law is clear… Absent notice and an opportunity to be heard prior to removal, the board’s decision to remove Slaughter and Jackson from their appointed positions was improper,” Associate Justice Robert Chamberlin wrote.
The case was heard by a three-member panel including Chamberlin, Presiding Justice Leslie King and Associate Justice David Ishee. All nine justices concurred.
[Read: Controversy and a shakeup at Canton Municipal Utilities]
The decision upholds a Madison County Circuit Court ruling handed down in September 2021, which determined the board of aldermen’s vote was “void as a matter of law.”
Slaughter and Jackson were removed from office in July 2020.
Slaughter allegedly took actions at CMU board meetings without having bond as required by state statute, for utilizing CMU employees to cut down and remove a tree at his home, and for telling the public that video recording of CMU meetings was not allowed.
Jackson was removed allegedly for not having bond and for telling the public video was not allowed. He also was taken off “failing to live in the city of Canton, as required by statute,” court records state.
Additionally, Slaughter was among a dozen current and former CMU employees who received demand letters from the Mississippi State Auditor requiring them to repay roughly $102,000.
Of that, Slaughter’s share was $3,542.02, which was the auditor said was due in connection with “voting to approve personal purchases” between November 2015 and November 2017.
Court records show the two were removed in April and May 2020. The duo appealed that decision to Madison County Circuit Court that June. The court granted a stay, to determine whether they were given due process.
Rather than submitting filings in the case, as required by the circuit court, though, justices say the board of aldermen issued a resolution notifying the two as to the cause for their discharge, and scheduling a hearing for July 21, 2020.
Mayor William Truly vetoed that decision on July 17, forcing an override vote. At a meeting on July 21, the board voted 5-1 to do that.
Truly did not attend the July 21 meeting. Mayor Pro Tempore Fred Esco filled in and voted along the majority to override. Following that vote, hearings for Slaughter and Jackson went forward, and the two were terminated.
The circuit court ruled that as mayor pro tempore, Esco could only vote in the event of tie, meaning the board did not have the two-thirds vote needed to override. Slaughter and Jackson were reinstated as a result.
“The board states that ‘although arguably not required by statute,’ Slaughter and Jackson were clearly provided with notice and an opportunity to be heard. But, absent the mayor’s approval of the resolution, the mayor’s failure to act on the resolution, or the board’s override of the veto… neither the resolution or any part of it may take effect,” the high court wrote.
“Slaughter and Jackson were deprived of procedural due process rights to which they are entitled as public officers. Without valid notice and an opportunity to be heard, the Board’s removal of Slaughter and Jackson was ineffective.”
Two former Canton aldermen, Eric Gilkey and Andrew Grant, were serving on the board at the time Slaughter and Jackson were removed.
In December 2021, the former elected leaders were among three city officials and a former city engineer indicted on bribery and wire charges in U.S. District Court.
Gilkey and Grant in November each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery. Gilkey is expected to be sentenced on May 24.
Rudy Warnock, the former city engineer, was slated to go to trial in January. However, in December, District Court Judge Henry Wingate granted a motion to continue the case until April 3. This month, Warnock filed for another continuation, as well as a motion for substitution of counsel.
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