AG opinion: City can keep 7 aldermen

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The city of Brookhaven may hold elections next year for thecurrent seven-member board of aldermen instead of having toredistrict down to five members, according to an attorney’sgeneral’s opinion received Monday.

Brookhaven officials sought the clarification because the city’scurrent population would necessitate a five-member board, althoughan approved annexation would allow the city to maintain itsseven-member board makeup. The annexation is under appeal.

The 2000 census placed the city’s population at 9,861, which isunder the 10,000 threshold for whether a city board has fivemembers or seven members. The annexation would boost the city’spopulation to more than 13,000.

The opinion, issued Nov. 19, cited the probability that the citywould have to redistrict down to five members and then back up toseven members.

“Under the unique facts of the situation, we are of the opinionthat the law allows you to proceed with the 2005 elections underthe current seven member system,” Phil Carter, special assistantattorney general, wrote in the opinion.

Carter did, however, address the possibility of a successfulappeal.

“If the Mississippi Supreme Court reverses the chancellor’sruling, the city would be required to immediately take allreasonable and appropriate steps to conduct an election based on afive member system,” Carter said.

City Attorney Joe Fernald said there is a “nominal difference”between the current 9,861 population and the 10,000 level needed tokeep seven board members. He said the attorney general’s opinionrecognized that.

“What they’re saying is, the difference is not enough given thecircumstances,” said Fernald, who also cited concerns about theexpense of multiple redistrictings.

Fernald was in the process of notifying city officials about theopinion Monday. Also, he said the city remains confident that thestate Supreme Court will uphold the annexation.

“When they do, we’ll be over 10,000,” Fernald said.

The current system includes representation of six wards and oneat large position for a total of seven. A five-member board wouldinclude four ward representatives and one at-large position.

If the city had to redistrict, Fernald two of the current sevenboard members would be facing other incumbents in the redrawnwards.

“This way, representation of the people remains intact andeveryone is covered,” Fernald said.

Fernald also mentioned the need to preserve a “stableenvironment” on the board until next year’s election. He citedthree aldermen seat changes as well as a new mayor and new cityclerk within the past year.

“That’s disruptive to continuity,” Fernald said. “When a newmember comes on board, they have to get up to speed as quickly aspossible.”

Sandra Gerald, spokeswoman for a group of objectors appealingthe annexation, said the attorney general’s opinion was expectedand reasonable.

“For the city’s sake, it doesn’t really affect us in theappeal,” she said.

While she contends the current city limits could probably behandled with five aldermen, Gerald said objectors did not want tobe viewed as being responsible for the city have to redistrict downto that number.

“That’s not our goal,” Gerald said. “Our purpose is we don’twant to be inside the city, but we don’t want to be against thecity.”

Gerald said the city is pursuing an “enormous” annexation and afive-member board would be insufficient to govern a city of thatsize. With the AG’s opinion, a seven-member board should helpprovide a smooth transition should the annexation be upheld, Geraldsaid.

In terms of land size, the 14.4 square-mile approved annexationarea would almost triple the city’s current 7.3 square miles to21.7 square miles.

In the trial that concluded earlier this year, the city hadsought a 16.6-square mile area. However, some portions were deletedby the judge.