Jury to decide if Reeves will continue as Port Gibson mayor|[05/21/08]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Amelda ArnoldFredReevesWhether Port Gibson Mayor Fred Reeves will continue to head the municipal government for which he has had charge since the first of the year will be decided by a jury, according to a court order made public Tuesday.

The order was sent to the Claiborne County Courthouse from Judge Prentiss Harrell of the 15th Judicial District. No trial date has been set, a law clerk with Harrell’s office said.

The order is a response to Reeves’ motion to dismiss two cases filed by former Mayor Amelda Arnold, who served two terms before losing to Reeves in the Nov. 13 Democratic primary. The cases were consolidated by Harrell’s court in February.

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Arnold has contended that Reeves, a native of Port Gibson, was not qualified to run in the election because of a question of his residency. Although he had moved back to the town of 2,000 to run for the seat, subsequently winning enough votes to take office in January, Arnold said Reeves had filed for homestead exemption for 2006 in Illinois. The exemption, in most cases, may be applied only to a homeowner’s primary residence.

A spokesman with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office has said the fact that Reeves had homestead exemption a year ago in another state is not of itself enough to disqualify him as a candidate in Port Gibson.

The legal battle has been ongoing since October and has resulted in Arnold challenging Reeves three times. After the first challenge, filed by Arnold Oct. 12, the Port Gibson Election Commission determined Reeves was an eligible candidate. He went on to receive 380 votes over Arnold’s 192 in the primary, which resulted in Arnold again challenging his qualifications to be a candidate – this time – in the general election Dec. 4. The commission reversed its earlier decision and determined Reeves was, in fact, not qualified to run and forced his name off the ballot.

On the day before the election, Reeves filed an injunction with Judge Lamar Pickard, who ordered his name be placed back on the ballot. As a result, Reeves received 100 percent of the votes as the only candidate on the ballot for mayor. Arnold appealed Pickard’s order to the state Supreme Court. Her appeal was later dismissed by the court, who termed it “moot,” and, on Dec. 21, she filed a petition in the Claiborne County Circuit Clerk’s Office contesting the election results by again raising the issue that Reeves was not qualified to run as a candidate for mayor.

Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Arnold said she has been instructed by her attorney not to comment.

Pickard has since recused himself, and Harrell was appointed to preside over the matter. His court, according to the order signed Thursday, granted Reeves his request to dismiss the first case.

“Arnold’s failure to file an appeal of the election commission’s decision declaring Reeves qualified as a candidate for mayor marked an end to her ability to challenge his qualifications, prior to his being elected to office,” the order states. “Arnold’s challenge… was invalid and, therefore, the election commission’s decision in regards to that challenge is void.”

Harrell’s order, however, deemed Arnold’s challenge “an appropriate vehicle to contest the outcome of a general election based on the newly elected official’s qualifications.” The law allows anyone wanting to contest an election 20 days from the election to do so. Reeves’ request to dismiss her election contest was, therefore, denied by the court.

“Even though Arnold makes the same argument asserted in her (previous) challenge, Reeves’ status has changed and therefore this is a new challenge, contesting the qualifications of Reeves, the Mayor of Port Gibson, not Reeves, the candidate for Democratic Party Nominee,” the order states.

Harrell’s law clerk, Kim Thomas, said the next step is for the attorneys from both parties to coordinate with the court to set a trial date. Reeves’ qualifications to serve as mayor will, then, be presented to and determined by a jury.