Jennifer Colmer, the newly elected councilwoman at-large for Pascagoula, said she plans to keep the job despite an opinion by the state Ethics Commission that questions her financial ties to the Jackson County Utility Authority.
She issued a statement that said she is looking forward to serving the taxpayers of the city like she pledged in her campaign and questioned the timing of the advisory opinion.
She called it “suspect” since she was not contacted by the city attorney who asked for the opinion, the commission itself, “or anyone else despite having qualified as a candidate on March 3.”
“I hope the intent of this advisory opinion is not an effort to subvert the will of the voters who chose me to serve,” she said. “While I am not an attorney, I am mindful of potential conflicts, having served on the Pascagoula-Gautier School District Board of Trustees, and am aware that public officials should and do seek legal and ethical ways to fulfill their obligations while avoiding conflicts of interest.”
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On May 4, two days after Colmer was elected in the primaries, City Attorney Eddie Williams asked the state Ethics Commission for a ruling on whether she and Stephen Burrow, the Republican candidate for Ward 3 in the general election next week — both with ties to the JCUA — have a conflict of interest if they take office.
The city is bound by contract with the utility authority for its sewage treatment (it’s the only source for this service) at a cost of about $300,000 a month and JCUA hires the law firm of Heidelberg, Steinberger, Colmer and Burrow to handle its legal matters. In fact, the firm is representing the utility in a lawsuit involving Pascagoula. All four cities in Jackson County have sued JCUA over cost increases and the structure of the appointed board that runs it.
Burrow is a partner in the firm and Colmer’s husband is as well. Williams asked for an advisory opinion from the ethics commission on whether the law firm could continue to represent the JCUA with a partner and the spouse of a partner on the City Council.
The commission said, no, if the two take office and the JCUA continues to use city money to pay the law firm. It called that a conflict of interest.
Why May 4?
Burrow, like Colmer, said he believes the Ethics Commission heard only one side of the story.
He also said, that unlike Colmer, he is still running for Ward 3. He has an opponent in the general election and it trying to focus on that first.
In a prepared statement, he said Williams contacted him on Jan. 3, right after he qualified to be a candidate, to discuss what Williams considered a conflict.
“However, Mr. Williams did not solicit the commission’s advisory opinion until after I had won the primary election and defeated the incumbent councilman.
“Had I received this advisory opinion in January, I may have withdrawn as a candidate, leaving the option open for other residents of Ward 3 to seek the office well before the March 1
qualifying deadline. However if I withdraw from the election now, then the Ward 3 candidate in the June 6 general election could be the very incumbent councilman the voters defeated in the primary.
“I remain a candidate for Ward 3 in the general election. To do otherwise would thwart the will of the people who elected me. Although I still believe there is no conflict of interest, if I am elected I assure the citizens of Pascagoula there will be no alleged conflict before I take office.”
Williams said he sent for the ethics opinion two days after the primary because, “there wasn’t anything to make a request for until someone won.”
He said he didn’t use names, just affiliations. And the commission responded on May 12, citing state law.
Williams asked the commission when on the City Council, if either of them could resolve the conflict by simply not voting on JCUA matters or matters involving the law firm.
Williams believes the Ethics Commission said, “no” to that too, because the commission said paying the JCUA is an act of the board and doesn’t require a yes vote from an individual councilperson.
“What we have now is an opinion from the Ethics Commission that can’t be resolved with a simple recusal (which is excusing themselves from voting). They have an incurable conflict of interest when they take office.”
So what’s next?
Williams said, “either way, the ball will bounce back to the Ethics Commission.”
He said the commission is the enforcer. He believes it left four options in the matter: For the law firm to stop representing JCUA, for the two lawyers to resign from the firm, for the candidates to withdraw or for someone to “demonstrate that none of the money Pascagoula pays the JCUA could be used to pay the law firm.”
Williams said he has not heard from either candidate recently.
Colmer told the Sun Herald, “Honesty and integrity are values which I hold very dear and as such I would never attempt to bend the rules, challenge or skirt the law ... I will serve the residents of Pascagoula while legally and ethically avoiding all conflicts of interest.”
Burrow said, “I disagree with the commission’s conclusions, which are based upon incomplete and mischaracterized facts.”
And he offered an opinion by the Ethics Opinion, issued in April of this year, regarding a power company employee running for an alderman position.
The question to the Ethics Commission there was whether a city could continue to buy electrical power from a power association that employs a candidate for alderman, if the alderman is elected.
The brief answer was “Yes.”
It said the alderman, if elected, would not violate state ethic laws if the city buys necessary electrical service from the power association where he works, “because the association is the sole source for electricity” and that makes it an exception under the law.
Burrow believes JCUA is a sole, or only, source of its services to Pascagoula.
“Nevertheless,” the commission said, “the alderman must fully recuse himself or herself from approval of all matters, including payments, to the power association to comply” with the law.