In a split vote Tuesday evening, the Columbus City Council hired its first dedicated public defender in years for Municipal Court.
Councilmen selected Columbus attorney Amanda Meadows for the position by a 4-2 margin, following the selection committee’s recommendation. Stephen Jones and Bill Gavin, councilmen for wards 5 and 6, respectively, opposed.
Meadows, who has practiced law for 12 years and operates her own firm locally, will make $25,751.70 as the city’s public defender. Municipal Court convenes about once a week.
In her city role, Meadows will represent defendants — many of whom will be charged with misdemeanors — who cannot afford an attorney and may not know their legal options. Not only did she say she could help those defendants better understand the legal process, but she hopes to help prevent future crime by providing clients adequate counsel before they graduate to committing felonies.
“It will also help us to identify instances of problems in the community, such as domestic violence or drug abuse,” she said. “It’s an entry level position to address bigger needs.”
City Attorney Jeff Turnage said Columbus created the public defender position to mitigate the potential for future lawsuits against the court system.
“The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) is filing lawsuits against municipalities all over the country because indigent defendants might not be adequately represented or they’re staying in jail too long,” he said. “So, this is a proactive step to avoid a federal lawsuit because the law is on (the ACLU’s) side.”
First motion interrupted
The selection committee — comprised of Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell, Municipal Court judges Gary Goodwin and Rhonda Ellis, Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong and Court Administrator Wendy Blunt — recommended Meadows for the post over local attorney Mark Jackson.
Gavin, at first, attempted to move to hire Jackson, but Mayor Robert Smith cut him off while he was speaking and gave the floor to Mitchell to read the committee’s recommendation. That prompted a separate motion to hire Meadows.
“We had two very qualified candidates,” Mitchell told the council. “It was a very difficult decision.”
After the meeting, Gavin chalked up his interrupted motion to hire Jackson as having simply “died without a second” from another councilman. He also said he wasn’t aware the committee had included a recommendation letter for Meadows in his council packet, as it was added just before the meeting.
“I’m sure both candidates are very qualified,” Gavin said. “It’s just that I know Mark, and I know the quality of his work. That’s why I moved to hire him.”
Police officers hired, one disciplined
On Tuesday, the council also voted to hire five police officers, pending their approval from the Civil Service Commission.
The new officers will bump the department’s roster to 49, still 18 short of the budgeted 67.
Last fiscal year, the council expanded its budget to accommodate 77 officers. However, the new fiscal year budget approved in September dialed force back to 67 roster spots, City Public Information Officer Joe Dillon said.
Once the city reaches its budgeted 67, Dillon said the council will reconsider expanding the force to 77.
During executive session Tuesday, the council suspended a police officer for one day without pay for violating department policy. City officials offered no more information about the issue on the record.
In other business, the council approved Weathers Construction’s bid of $275,417.50 for an improvement project on Catfish Alley.
The project will be partially funded through Mississippi Department of Transportation and Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau matches.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.