By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Democratic mayoral candidate Jason Shelton admits his law firm filing a lawsuit against the city just days after he qualified to run for office wasn’t the best public relations move for his political campaign.
The lawsuit claims a young girl feeding ducks about a year ago at Ballard Park fell after a board broke on a stage area where she stood, causing “extensive bruising and back pain.”
The lawsuit filed by attorney Chad Benoit said the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation is liable for negligence related to the case.
“It was a case that an attorney at my firm had accepted and a deadline passed after I qualified,” Shelton said.
However, if elected mayor, Shelton said his law firm, Shelton and Associates, will not represent anyone related to cases with the city of Tupelo. If elected, he said his firm won’t even represent clients appearing in Tupelo Municipal Court.
“We’re going to lose money in my law firm but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make because Tupelo is at crossroads,” Shelton said.
Shelton isn’t the only candidate seeking elected office in this year’s Tupelo city elections with potential conflicts of interest. He joins at least four other candidates with real or perceived conflicts.
Ward 5 City Council candidate Buddy Palmer hasn’t yet decided if he’ll remain as a member on the board of directors of the Tombigbee Electric Power Association if elected as a councilman.
He would break no laws by serving on the board of directors for the nonprofit power association that serves customers in portions of Tupelo, othermunicipalities and unincorporated areas of Lee County and parts of surrounding counties. But questions could surface about whose interest he represents if the City Council faces issues related to Tupelo Water & Light and Tombigbee EPA.
Palmer’s elected term on the power association ends later this year, but he could opt to seek to serve on the customer-owned utility company again.
“If I’m elected to the City Council, that’s something I’d discuss with the city attorney,” Palmer said.
Ward 1 candidate Daniel Owens has said repeatedly that he’ll resign immediately from his fulltime job as a fireman with the Tupelo Fire Department if he’s elected to the council. That would be required under state law.
Ward 3 candidate Liz Dawson is employed as community health director for North Mississippi Health Services, the parent organization for North Mississippi Medical Center. She said if elected she’ll recuse herself of any votes related to NMMC and the city.
Chris Graham, assistant director and counsel at the Mississippi Ethics Commission, said months during an election cycle always involve phone calls to his office from candidates wondering about conflicts. He said a candidate having potential conflicts of interest isn’t surprising.
“My experience has been folks who have run for public office are very active in their communities and successful in business,” Graham said.
While Graham and other state Ethics Commission staff members don’t make recommendations – that’s the work of the 18-member commission – he and others research state law and help provide information for the group to base decisions on.
While he said candidates for Tupelo elected offices with potential conflict of interest issues may have unique situations, their issues fall into themes faced by the commission in prior years. Previous rulings by the Ethics Commission are posted on its website, although personal information is removed.
While most conflict of interest issues in Tupelo elections this year arise from first-time candidates, concerns can emerge for incumbents. Nettie Davis, Tupelo’s longest serving City Council member, has a new potential conflict of interest.
Her adult daughter, Natalia Davis, was hired on Oct. 1, 2011, as a records clerk in the city’s planning department. A longtime supporter of pay raises for city employees, Nettie Davis said she may not vote for another one since her daughter would be a beneficiary.
“I’ll abstain from voting for one if it comes up,” she said.
Davis isn’t the first council member to have family members working for the city. Cassandra Moore, head of the city’s human resources department, said the city has a history of hiring immediate family of elected officials, even while some still served in office. The daughter of former councilman Thomas Bonds worked for the city while his father was on the City Council.
Graham of the Ethics Commission said ethical issues such as voting on pay raises for family members can be gray areas. For example, the commission may likely differentiate between votes for all employees or a vote specifically for an elected official’s relative.
“A lot of times a candidate or elected official will have to decide whether to do something based on perception,” he said.