Racial tensions high in Jonesboro, Black mayor faces charges
11th February 2013 · 0 Comments
By J. Kojo Livingston
Here we go, again.
The theme of Black elected officials facing tremendous racial opposition is almost a cliché today. The events unfolding in Jonesboro, La put the lie to the notion of a post-racial USA. What’s happening in Jonesboro calls into question if the state’s justice system actually went beyond its authority to neuter a Black mayor and the City Council.
Mayor Leslie Thompson is the first African American elected to serve as mayor of a rural town called Jonesboro located in north central Louisiana. When he was first elected Jonesboro was 52 percent white and 48 percent Black. When he was re-elected the numbers were exactly reversed.
From the moment he was first elected in 2006 he has been under constant attack. Many of these have been clearly racial such as when an official in a city council meeting declared for all to hear, “I’m tired of all the god-d**** ni**ers.” The incident made Youtube. Other actions are not so overt and some have come through the court system itself. At one point the city government was taken over by a fiscal administrator.
Thompson spoke with The Louisiana Weekly about his situation, “I have been the target of these attacks for six years and have now decided that it is time to let the country know what is taking place in the back yard of our great country known as the USA. It is most unfortunate that even in the year of 2012 that many of our citizens are still driven by hatred and racism. I do agree that not all of our cultural differences and inability to agree should be reduced to racism and I believe that most can be attributed to a natural inclination on the part of human beings to resist change.”
The citizens of the Town of Jonesboro have united to file a federal lawsuit alleging that their constitutional rights have been violated. According to the lawsuit, the citizens allege their right to vote should be protected and maintain that their vote has been adversely impacted in view of the fact that after electing the candidate of their choice and after a failed recall attempt these same forces would go to this extent of and using the courts to remove the candidate, from office, as opposed to the established democratic voting process.
The citizens filing the lawsuit allege that the real danger of court or legislative body ability to negate the value of one’s vote through the means used in Jackson Parish threatens to weaken democracy as we know it and puts the security of all elected officials at risk.
The attacks allegedly began immediately after the mayor’s first election. Immediately following his election, a recall was put forth. Also, reportedly, after a white city employee who was a supervisor declared, “I’ll never work under a ni**er,” white employees walked off of the job, leaving the administration vulnerable with reference to internal controls and record keeping.
Seemingly a domino effect followed with the local auditor of 15-plus years resigned his post, forcing the city to hire a less-experienced auditor which led to further complications. Council members of Mayor Thompson’s first term reportedly then traveled to Baton Rouge and appeared before Legislative Aud?itor Advisory Commit?tee and claimed that Mayor Thompson was corrupt, alleging that the mayor hosted parties without the Council approval. They also accused him of hosting a gospel concert without their approval.
Of the corruption charges Thompson said, “I held networks like the one alleged with mayors and councils from surrounding areas, designed to share information and marketing strategies to promote said towns represented. Most of the funding secured to host these networks came from outside sources. Any funds used from town was budgeted and approved by Council in the area of marketing and entertainment. The alleged network fell on the mayor’s birthday. As such, donors provided champagne for the toast which was not purchased with tax payer dollars. The Council members during Mayor Thomp?son’s first term adopted a budget which included money for marketing and entertainment.”
The former fire chief sued the mayor, claiming that he was released from employment wrongfully. The mayor showed that he had followed proper procedure by having written a letter to the former fire chief to relieve him of his duties, and the former fire chief had signed off on an agreement to his termination.
This action was confirmed by Council in a public meeting. Then former police employees filed a lawsuit against the Mayor claiming wrongful termination and lost wages. Then came allegations that the mayor was responsible for misappropriation of funds. The Legis?lative Auditor of the State of Louisiana launched a quarter million dollars extensive investigation of the town’s financial records. Accord?ing to the local sheriff, $385,122.69 was unaccounted for and thus merited an investigation. A Justice Department representative was called in to examine all records and all invoices claimed missing. The records and invoices of the alleged misappropriations were prepared and presented to the Legislative Auditors without finding improprieties. Nonetheless, the untrue charges continued to be in the headlines for months.
After that tactic failed, the Legislative Auditor alleged that the mayor may have sold land illegally. It was found that the mayor had ensured that all laws were properly complied with. Then the local sheriff launched an extensive land fraud deal investigation and after an extensive investigation, he concluded that the mayor had done no wrong.
Then the former mayor, D. Essemier and others sued the mayor and Black Council members claiming that the town’s budget was unbalanced. A District Judge ruled against the town and raised allegations to the level of a felony, alleging that the creation of an unbalanced budget was done knowingly and willingly. However, after thoroughly investigating the charges, the Court of Appeals upheld the town’s position that budget was balanced and that the Budget Act had not been violated.
Then the sheriff served the mayor and Council with an injunction prior to a council meeting prohibiting them from voting on the mayor’s raise and the budget with threat of incarceration if violated. The mayor and Council complied. Ex-mayor and others filed motion in District Court. The town lost in District Court but took it to Court of Appeals and won.
Other claims included the mayor violating the Public Bid Law regarding the purchase of a car and the same for the purchase of gas. A councilwoman filed lawsuit against the mayor, claiming battery because he shook her hand at a public event. The sheriff upheld the charge and then raided City Hall without a clear reason.
As for the current situation, Thompson says, “We’ve been served papers and we are scheduled to be in court on February 21. That’s when the district judge will make a ruling for having an unbalanced budget. The Supreme Court opted not to hear the case. This should have been a misdemeanor if we had been wrong, which we maintain we are not. However the district judge escalated that charge, which is very uncommon. The petition was not brought before the court as to whether or not this was done knowingly and willingly. However, the district judge took it upon himself escalate what would be a misdemeanor to something more serious by saying that the council adopted an unbalanced budget knowingly and willingly. On the 21st we will see what he will render as judgment. We are somewhat concerned in that his ruling seemed to have been based on racism and discrimination. That’s how we see it because every one of our budgets have been balanced since I’ve been mayor, so for us to come and answer if there was a deficit or not is pretty ludicrous. This matter has made a full circle and we are inviting people to come to the court that day. However we know that that is unfair.”
The city government has been taken over by an administrator. “That’s another thing that we consider to be illegal on the part of the legislative auditor and the attorney general. The statute states that they must prove that a municipality could not meet its liabilities and expenses. After they prove that, then they would be in a position according to law and according to the statute to be able to appoint a fiscal administrator. They were never able to prove that, but they did it any way. We’re concerned that if you allow for a fiscal administrator to be assigned when the muster of what is required by law has not been met, then this sets a bad, bad, precedent for all municipalities and all elected officials. This guy actually did come in and charge us right at $1,000 per day and we had to pay it based upon the mandate that came from the court. Having to pay that kind of money and you’re already supposed to be financially challenged there’s something wrong with that picture.”
The administrator was able to usurp the authority and the power of the mayor and the council. Even one of the judges who actually dissented at the court of appeals said there is no law that supports this act. But the district judge not only gave him that appointment but gave him that authority. “That’s totally illegal and totally unconstitutional and we’re just trying to get somebody to hear our cry,” says Thompson.
“That was a part of the issue that should have been heard by the Supreme Court,” he added. “We’re not starting to believe that because of who we are up against, the Attorney General and some of the other guys Down South. I don’t want to imply that the integrity of the court has been compromised but we believe that somehow politics has gotten involved because I don’t believe that you will find anywhere in history that in five to seven days the supreme court would have been rejected the hearing item. We don’t believe that gave you enough time to even know what the item was about.”
Thompson hopes that people will turn out to the court hearing on February 21 in downtown Jones?boro. “Our nation’s problem is not that we are a weak nation. No, America is in fact a super power riddled with the inability to acknowledge the weaknesses and take steps toward correcting them. Instead, America buries its head in the sand and would pretend that all is well when problems of hatred and discrimination are all around us. This country must strive to acknowledge its weaknesses and move to overcome them.”
The NAACP and other groups are watching this situation as it develops.
This article was originally published in the February 11, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper