A day after hearing from both sides in an investigation of three of the top employees at Clarksdale Public Utilities, and less than 24 hours after being served notice of a federal lawsuit against the city, the Clarksdale Board of Mayor and Commissioners voted Tuesday to a settlement, allowing the inquiry to continue.
After Tuesday’s vote by commissioners to settle the lawsuit, which involves no monetary compensation, attorneys for the CPU board of directors were expected to call for a meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss rescinding the lawsuit that had been filed a day earlier in the Greenville division of the U.S. District Court of Northern Mississippi.
Mayor Chuck Espy said the settlement didn’t come about due to the threat of a lawsuit, but rather from the information they received from the three suspended employees during Monday’s executive session.
He said the information provided didn’t “rise to the removal of any commissioners” from the Clarksdale Public Utilities Commission.
“We were duty bound to see what, if anything, would rise to that level because those were some alarming allegations.
“But at the end of the day, it seems like it’s a lot of smoke, but no real fire,” Espy said.
The lawsuit filed Monday in federal court was seeking an injunction against the city prohibiting the mayor and commissioners from removing the five individual CPU board members.
The members of the Clarksdale Public Utilities Commission, which was formed in 1989, are chairman Freddie Davis, James Hicks, George Miller, Donald Mitchell and Dr. James Humber. They serve staggered five-year terms and are appointed by the Clarksdale mayor and board of commissioners.
The mayor said in the city’s opinion there were no illegal or unethical activities made by any of the CPU commissioners.
“It may have been poor judgement, but nothing rose to the level of breaking the law or being unethical,” Espy said of the actions of the CPU board.
Espy said “technically, the city owns CPU, but the board has complete autonomy from the city board, but it is an arm of the city of Clarksdale.”
As far as personnel matters at CPU, Espy said it is in his opinion that “it should be handled through the arm of the city of Clarksdale, which that’s the CPU board.”
The lawsuit filed Monday by CPU sought to prohibit the city from “interfering in CPUC’s management of its personnel, including the right to pursue an investigation into the matters” involving General Manager Mark Johnson and the other two suspended employees, Chief Financial Officer Steve Reed and Chris Campos, the director of communications and public relations, as well as other CPU employees.
Former Clarksdale city attorney Curtis Boschert, who is handling Freedom of Information Act requests for CPU, said Tuesday afternoon that “the CPU board will most likely have a special called meeting to address the letter sent from the city board.” He anticipated the board meeting Wednesday afternoon.
The lawsuit also sought $500,000 in damages, as well as attorney fees and other costs.
For the mayor, his attention is now directed toward “soaring utility bills.”
“At this point, we’re more interested that making sure that the peoples’ business prevails and we’re working with CPU to lower the high utility bills that are plaguing many citizens of Clarksdale. That’s the next big task,” Espy said.
On July 30, the board unanimously agreed to direct City Attorney Margarette Meeks to write a letter on behalf of the city to each of the CPU board members and David Hunt, the CPU board attorney, requesting that the board members appear before the commission on Aug. 6.
Commissioner Ken Murphey said at the time that the letter was sent to stave off the investigation of the suspended trio.
After Tuesday’s vote, of which Murphey was the lone "nay" vote, the commissioner said his opinion hadn’t changed of Johnson, Reed and Campos.
“We’ve got three good men here that were moving Clarksdale forward,” Murphey said. “I’m going to say it again, ‘It’s time for everybody to start working together to move us forward.’ And I will continue to say that. Hopefully the outcome will be soon.”
Johnson, Reed and Campos declined comment Tuesday, referring questions to their attorney, Berk Huskison, of the Mitchell, McNutt & Sams law firm in Columbus.
On Monday, Espy and commissioners Murphey, Bo Plunk and Willie Turner heard from both sides during the 45-minute executive session, which was closed to the public. Plunk voted against going into executive session, but the measure passed 2-1 with Murphey and Turner both voting “aye”. Commissioner Ed Seals was absent from Monday’s meeting.
Boshert, CPU attorney David O’Donnell and Davis were in the meeting, along with the three suspended employees, for about 15 minutes before Boschert, O’Donnell and Davis emerged.
Johnson, as well as Reed and Campos, continued to meet with the mayor and commissioners for about 20 minutes before the meeting was re-opened to the public and the board voted to recess until Tuesday’s noon meeting.
At Tuesday’s meeting, both Murphey and Turner were present along with Espy, while Plunk and Seals both listened in and participated via mobile phone connections.