Rep. Shanda Yates, D-Jackson, asks a question of a bill presented before the House Judiciary B Committee at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, March 3, 2020. Legislators face a deadline for committees to report on general bills originating in their own house. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

A bill to allow removal of elected city officials that opponents said was aimed at Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba was tabled without a vote Wednesday after some heated debate on the House floor.

Rep. Shanda Yates, I-Jackson, moved to table her proposal at the request of the GOP House leadership after she fielded numerous questions on House Bill 370. The bill would have added municipal officials to a seldom-used 1950s law that allows for removal of elected county officials.

Yates faced repeated questions of whether the bill was aimed at Lumumba, who has clashed with the governor and faced criticism statewide over Jackson’s ongoing water system crisis. Yates repeatedly said her bill was not aimed at any one person, but simply to allow for removal of city officials for “willful failure or refusal to perform the duties of the office.”

“Everyone else from the governor on down is subject to some form of impeachment or removal except for municipal officials,” Yates said. “This is not rash or rushed. I’ve been working on it since this summer.”

Yates moved to table the measure, which could be brought up later for a vote. She said she hopes to bring it up again, and believes there are enough votes to pass it in the House.

Yates faced heated questions and debate on Wednesday. It was the first general bill taken up by the House in the 2023 session.

“This is about the mayor of Jackson, who has taken on the governor, and to allow the governor to appoint a three-judge panel to remove the mayor of Jackson, just so we’re clear on what’s being proposed,” said House Democratic Leader Robert Johnson III. “For 60 years, close to 70 years, it was fine not to have municipal officials in this, but after the water crisis and the federal government sending $600 million to the city of Jackson, now this is needed?”

Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said, “We already have a process for accountability, it’s to stand for reelection every four years.”

Yates’ bill would add city officials to a law from the late 1950s that allows removal of county officials. It would first require 30% of voters to sign a petition calling for an official’s removal and send it to the governor. The governor would appoint a three-judge panel that would determine if the petition had merit, and if so, an election would be held for voters to decide whether the official should be removed.

If the official was removed, a special election would be held for a replacement, and the official who had been removed could not run for that seat again.

After the debate, Yates told reporters that she drafted the bill after constituents asked her whether there was a process by which city officials could be removed, and she researched and discovered there was not.

Yates said her research showed that the law has been used only twice to remove county officials, once in 1958 and once in 1998.

Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, during floor debate pointed out that the origin of the 1950s law was from Prohibition — to allow removal of sheriffs who were not enthusiastically enforcing laws against alcohol in some Mississippi counties.

Some lawmakers argued that since the law is old and has been scantly used, it should not be updated to include city elected officials.

“We also have the ability to impeach a governor, and we’ve only done that one time in our history,” Yates said. “Should we also remove the people’s ability to do that as well?”

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.