By Emily Wagster Pettus
As Mississippi’s capital city of Jackson struggles with water problems and its Democratic mayor clashes with the Republican governor, lawmakers debated a proposal Wednesday that would allow recall elections for municipal officials in the state.
Rep. Shanda Yates, an independent from Jackson who sponsored the legislation, told reporters some constituents had asked whether there is a process for removing a city leader from office.
Mississippi law currently allows recall elections for county officials but not city officials.
Under Yates’ proposal, a recall election for a mayor would be held if at least 30% of a city’s registered voters sign a petition saying the mayor has failed to fulfill obligations of the job. The governor would then appoint three municipal judges from other cities to determine whether “there is a substantial basis for a removal election.’’ If the judges find there is, a recall election would be held.
For the recall to be successful, at least half of the qualified voters in the city must take part in the election _ and a majority of those casting ballots would have to vote to remove the mayor.
The House debated the proposal, House Bill 370, Wednesday before Yates had it set aside without members voting on it. She said she did so at the request of House leaders, who are Republicans. The bill could come up for more debate, and a possible vote, before a Feb. 9 deadline.
Yates was sharply questioned by Democrats during the debate who said the bill appears aimed at Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat who was first elected in 2017.
Democratic Rep. Ed Blackmon asked her: “It is the city of Jackson that we’re after?“
Yates said recall elections could provide accountability if people think city officials are willfully failing to do their jobs.
Yates was elected in 2019 as a Democrat, narrowly defeating a longtime Republican lawmaker. She announced in January 2022 that she was dropping the party label. Yates is white, and her district includes mostly white areas in Jackson, a city where more than 80% of residents are Black. Lumumba is Black, as all Jackson mayors have been since the 1997 election.
“It’s no point in us pretending we don’t know that just about everybody in this city who is white would … sign a petition and say, `We want to get rid of that mayor,’’’ said Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson, who is Black.
Yates responded: “I don’t think so. We haven’t had 30% of the people in Jackson vote in a mayoral election, maybe ever. So I don’t know that we could get 30% of anybody to sign anything.“
Johnson said House members who have complained about the mayor of Jackson are all white.
“This is about the African-American mayor of Jackson who has taken on the governor of this state, and we’re going to let the governor appoint a three-judge panel and come in here and have 30%, a minority of the population, sign a petition to say, `We need to have an election to see if you need to go,’“ Johnson said.
Jackson has had water system problems for years, and most of the city’s 150,000 residents lost water service for several days in August and September after flooding of the Pearl River exacerbated problems in the city’s main water treatment plant. A cold snap in late December again left much of the city without running water as pipes froze or broke.
In a federal complaint Sept. 27, the NAACP said Mississippi officials “all but assured’’ a drinking water calamity by depriving Jackson of badly needed funds to upgrade its infrastructure. The EPA announced Oct. 20 that it was investigating whether Mississippi state agencies discriminated against the city by refusing to fund improvements to the water system.
A $1.7 trillion federal spending bill that President Joe Biden signed in late December includes $600 million for the Jackson water system. The spending will be overseen by a third-party administrator who was appointed, at the request of the U.S. Justice Department, to oversee improvements to the system.