BEAUMONT, Texas (CN) – Three City Council members in Jasper, made famous by the 1998 dragging murder of black resident James Byrd by three white men, seek an injunction to stop a Nov. 8 recall election aimed at them, they say, for voting to hire the city’s first black chief of police.
Council members Tommy Adams, Willie Land and Terrya Norsworthy, who are black, sued the City of Jasper, its Mayor Mike Lout, City Secretary Karen Pumphrey, and nine others, all white, who they say were involved in the recall process.
Two ministers and six other residents of Jasper joined as plaintiffs in the federal complaint.
The plaintiffs say that early this year Mayor Mike Lout “made a back room deal and promised the position of Police Chief to his friend Captain Gerald Hall.”
The council members say the mayor did not have authority to promise the job of police chief to anyone. “The City’s Charter reserves the right to hire the Chief of Police to the Council,” the complaint states.
The plaintiffs say the city’s five-member council refused to go along with the mayor, and on Feb. 14 unanimously voted Rodney Pearson to be the city’s first black police chief on an interim basis.
The plaintiffs say Mayor Lout and human resources director Joe Whitener then tried to incorporate a new “scoring” system to prevent the permanent hiring of Pearson without the council’s permission or authority.
“The Mayor and Mr. Whitener also attempted to change the requirements for Police Chief without the authority or permission of the City Council in an attempt to prevent Mr. Pearson from becoming the first black Chief of Police,” the plaintiffs say.
Whitener is not named as a defendant.
The council subsequently voted 4-1 to make Pearson the city’s police chief, according to the complaint.
Then, “In the late spring/early summer a clandestine group named the ‘League of Concerned Citizens for Jasper’ was formed to discredit the Chief and Council and to remove Councilmen Land, Adams, and Norsworthy from office because of their vote to hire a black police chief,” according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs say racist comments have circulated on the Internet regarding the black council members’ decision to hire a black police chief.
The complaint states: “Racial slurs, epithets and threatening comments have circulated over the internet against the Council and chief. For example Defendant Caraway referencing the Council’s decision to hire Chief Pearson stated, ‘I’ll say it!!! Stupid Niggers!!!’
“Judy Hall, wife of Captain Hall claimed, ‘Hmmmm …. yep, very interesting. I think there is about to be a stink here in Jasper bigger than the Byrd ordeal!!!.'”
On July 27 recallers presented petitions to council members Adams, Land and Norsworthy.
“The petitions were initiated pursuant to the City Charter’s recall provisions and alleged that Adams, Land and Norsworthy were incompetent and engaged in misconduct and malfeasance when they hired Jasper’s first black chief of police,” the complaint states.
“Collectively, Councilmen Land, Adams, and Norsworthy have served on the Jasper City Council for a number of years and have voted on numerous items impacting the City of Jasper.
“Prior to the hiring of Jasper’s first black chief of police, never have Councilmen Adam’s, Land’s or Norsworthy’s integrity or competency been questioned.”
The plaintiffs say Mayor Lout conspired with the recall petitioners to illegally remove them from office, and that the recall petition “contained obvious forged signatures of several persons …”
They also claim: “The City Charter fails to require the City Secretary to certify that persons executing the recall petition are in fact qualified voters within the City of Jasper.”
They say City Secretary Karen Pumphrey “erroneously certified” that her office had verified the qualifications of each voter who signed the recall petition.
“The petitions were accompanied by affidavits sworn by defendants Pamela Hamilton, Dustin Stewart, Gloria Monzingo, William H. McCullon Jr., Beth Burrows, Rebecca Miller, Marguerite Braden, Sylvia Haughaboo and Lance Caraway,” the plaintiffs say. All nine are named as defendants.
The councilmen say those nine defendants “swore under oath that the signatures appearing on the petition were made in their presence.”
In its regular meeting on Aug. 8 the City Council considered, and failed to approve, the recall election for Adams, Land and Norsworthy, according to the complaint.
A petition for writ of mandamus was filed in state court on Aug. 22, and on Aug. 29 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for Texas directed the City of Jasper to order the recall elections of Land, Adams and Norsworthy on Nov. 8.
“On September 1, 2011, the City Council ordered the recall election and scheduled the recall election for November 8, 2011,” according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs seek a declaration that Jasper’s City Charter violates the 14th Amendment “because voters in single-member minority districts are deprived of their duly elected representatives by Jasper residents who are not qualified to vote for the Council Members they are seeking to recall.”
The plaintiffs add: “If the recall procedure adopted by the City is allowed to remain in effect, African-American voting strength will be rendered null and void in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the equal protection guarantees under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
They want the city enjoined from holding the recall election, which they say will violate the Voting Rights Act, as “the City Charter’s current recall plan has a discriminatory effect on the ability of black voters in Jasper to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice to public office.”
They also say the election should be enjoined as the defendants arranged it through illegal, forged signatures.
The plaintiffs are represented by David Bernsen of Beaumont, and by Melody Chappell, with Wells, Peyton, Greenberg & Hunt, also of Beaumont.