Clarksdale settles lawsuit one day after public utilities commission filed complaint seeking $500,000

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CLARKSDALE – City government officials find themselves entangled in yet another legal battle. The utility commission here filed a complaint accusing the Mayor and Board of Commissioners of making unauthorized and illegal demands and interfering with the commission’s duties.

Ken Murphy, Ed Seals, Chuck Espy, Bo Plunk, and Willie Turner, Jr.

City Hall

Clarksdale Mayor Chuck Espy (centered) poses in front of City Hall with commissioners Ken Murphy (left to right), Ed Seals, Timothy “Bo” Plunk, and Willie Turner, Jr. This photo was taken from a pamphlet that gives contact information and services provided by City’s different departments.

Although the complaint was filed on Monday on behalf of the Clarksdale Public Utilities Commission, the city attorney, Margarette Meeks, announced that the board voted to settle the lawsuit Tuesday afternoon after a short executive session during a recessed meeting at the City Hall chambers.

The terms of the settlement were not readily available. The plaintiffs were seeking compensatory damages and losses in the amount of $500,000 and a separate award for attorney fees.

They were also seeking a temporary restraining order prohibiting city officials from removing CPU commission members and to stop officials from interfering in the CPU commission management of its personnel,  including a recent investigation of three suspended employees – General Manager Mark Johnson, Chief Financial Officer Steve Reed, and Public Relations Director, Chris Campos.

The public utilities commission consists of a five member board, appointed for a staggered five year term by the Mayor and Board of Commissioners, to oversee the operations of Clarksdale Public Utilities – a water and light company that provides services to about 6,800 homes, according to its website.

Although city officials created the board in 1989, and the city essentially owns the utility company, their authority only allows them to appoint people to the board, remove members prior to the end of their term but only for good cause, and the right to receive quarterly reports about the system operations, the complaint stated.

The current CPU commission members are Freddie Davis, James Hicks, George Miller, Donald Mitchell, and James Humber.

The complaint outlined what the plaintiffs allege are “unauthorized and illegal demands” from Mayor Chuck Espy along with the city commissioners, Ed Seals, Willie Turner, Jr., Ken Murphey, and Timothy “Bo” Plunk. 

According to the now dismissed lawsuit, city officials demanded that the CPU commission:

• Transfer $800,000 to the city

•  Stay all of their meetings

• Stop an investigation of certain confidential personnel issues

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenville, also alleged that the city was interfering in the commissions authority to control, manage, and operate the utility system and personnel, and that officials were threatening the removal of the CPU commission members from their positions.

The settlement was reached as the city continues to defend itself in another lawsuit. Recently, three former white employees filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging they were fired because of racial discrimination.