By Bill Short
The Millington Board of Mayor and Aldermen has proposed an amendment to the City Charter that would convert the City Judge to an appointed position.
Board members took the action during their Dec. 10, 2018 meeting on a motion offered by Alderman Don Lowry and seconded by Alderman Bethany Huffman.
The motion was passed by six affirmative votes, with Alderman Frankie Dakin dissenting.
City Attorney Gerald Lawson said the proposed amendment would become effective at the conclusion of the current eight-year term of elected City Judge Wilson Wages in 2022. The board would appoint the next judge and specify the term and duties of the position.
Lawson noted that the judge would not have concurrent General Sessions jurisdiction and would only hear violations of the Charter, city ordinances and traffic laws. All pending cases before the court for violation of state criminal laws would be transferred to Shelby County General Sessions Court at 201 Poplar Ave. in Memphis.
During discussion shortly before the vote, Dakin acknowledged that it was his final board meeting as an alderman. But he said changing to an appointed judge would “really shift the power away” from a judge elected by the city’s residents.
“I’m not saying that’s not the right thing to do,” he noted. “I’m just saying that I haven’t seen the information I need to make an educated decision on that tonight.”
Alderman Thomas McGhee said the reasons for the proposed amendment should be discussed. He asked whether it is “cost-effective” for the city to maintain its current judicial system.
“As I understand it,” he said, “we’re not coming close to breaking even. We’re spending a lot more money, in addition to the liability that we assume with all the things that go on in that process.”
City Finance Director John Trusty said no judicial system that deals with criminal cases ever generates enough money to cover its operating cost. But he noted that the administration’s “ultimate goal” is to eliminate the city jail.
Trusty said some of the “biggest concerns” of Millington’s insurance provider are associated with the potential for lawsuits involving jails and the treatment of prisoners.
“So, this would ultimately lead to us limiting those liabilities and also lowering the cost of insurance,” he noted.
In response to a question by McGhee, Trusty said he does not believe Millington would lose any “security or safety” for its residents if the city judge did not have General Sessions jurisdiction.
Police Chief Mark Dunbar said an individual who remains in the city jail for more than 14 days is required to be given a physical examination. And some prisoners must receive prescription medication or have teeth extracted.
Trusty said Millington must also provide a prosecutor when General Sessions cases are heard by the city judge.
“Once they go down to 201 Poplar,” he noted, “the county district attorney will be handling those.”
In response to a question by Lowry, Dunbar said Millington receives no money from the state or federal government for housing prisoners here, rather than transferring them to the county judicial system.
While calling these all “great questions,” Dakin expressed appreciation for Dunbar’s willingness to answer them. But he said the proposed amendment deserves more discussion.
“The judge isn’t present tonight,” he noted. “I don’t know if he’s been consulted. I would have questions for him about this.”
During a telephone interview late last week, Wages said he did not know that the amendment had been proposed until Mayor Terry Jones told him about it the day after the board meeting.
He recalled that Trusty and City Manager Ed Haley asked him in March 2018 to try to “keep the jail population low,” because it was costing money.
“But the biggest problem,” he said, “is they really believe that, with some sort of shuttle service, we can arrest people for misdemeanors and felonies and carry them to 201 Poplar.”
Wages said he told them that, on one shift during the previous week, only two patrol cars were on the street. So, if a man and a woman had been arrested, both cars would have been “out of commission” while transporting them to 201 Poplar and Jail East.
He noted that it takes anywhere from 15 minutes to six hours to “book somebody in at the sally port,” particularly, if it is during a shift change or a lockdown.
Recalling that 120 individuals were arrested last January in Millington and 128 during another month, he is “sort of hesitant” to believe that a “shuttle service” would transport that many. So, he said the city would have to purchase additional police cars and employ more officers.
Wages concluded that it would not make sense for Millington to “delete” its court’s General Sessions jurisdiction, “shut down” the jail, transport all the arrested persons to 201 Poplar and still have police officers in the city. So, he is assuming that the “long-range plan” is to “hand over” the police department’s keys to the Sheriff’s Office.