WP talks Municipal Court judge appointment process

Published 6:56 am Thursday, December 17, 2020

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After a long discussion about it Monday, the West Point City Council will interview the three candidates for the city’s open municipal court judge position on Thursday.

The final three candidates are Benjamin Wilcox, Luther Jones and James Baker.

During Monday’s business meeting, Councilman Gerald Ledbetter made a late motion to amend the agenda to discuss a plan for the interviews. Joe Downs seconded the motion.

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The position was vacated when Wesley Leonard was elected as Troup County State Court Judge on Aug. 11. Leonard had served as the West Point Municipal Court Judge since his appointment in 2009.

Much of Monday’s discussion settled on how the council selected its final three candidates out of the five who submitted applications.

Councilwoman DeeDee Williams said she wanted to have some discussion about all the candidates and come up with a consensus amongst the council.

“Personally, I think my three may be different than Sandra’s three and Joe’s and so forth and so on. I would think we need to at least have some discussion about a consensus of what three we will interview, and I am just curious as to why these three,” Williams said.

Williams said she did not think the council should eliminate any candidates and that all candidates should be discussed.

“I would like to see us have dialogue about the candidate pool, and then from that conversation, if we don’t feel the need to interview but two or three or whatever the number is, that’s pretty normal,” Williams said.

Councilwoman Gloria Marshall told Williams there was a message that went out on why the council should not interview the other candidates.

“Did you not see, I don’t know if it was an email or text, the reason we should not interview the other three?” Marshall asked.

Williams asked why the council would move to exclude candidates without a process that allowed for discussion.

“Can someone answer to me why we would want to exclude applicants at this juncture? You know, we haven’t had a process that gives all of us an opportunity to say who we think are the best qualified among the full group,” Williams said.

“It is my understanding that the council has discussed this amongst themselves, and this is their desire,” said Mayor Steve Tramell. “And I’m hearing five council members [say] this is their desire.”

Trammel also commented that he thought all councilmembers communicated with each other. “I assume that all of you council members talk amongst yourselves, you talk with Ed [Moon]. That’s how this process should work. We don’t come into these meetings having not spoken with one another during the month.

If you all aren’t talking with one another — you need to be. We can’t accomplish what we need to accomplish in 30 minutes three times a month or an hour three times a month. I think you should be talking to one another,” Trammel said.

Williams held firm that she did not feel as though the council properly vetted all the candidates and no consensus was reached.

“I understand that all of you want to go with these three people, but you’re jumping over the whole process of how do we get to those three people being the three that we’re going to settle on,” Williams said. “I’m one out of five. I know that. But to sit here and say that we’ve come to a consensus that it should be only those three, we haven’t. One person came up with that, put it out on a text this morning,” she said.

Williams questioned whether the group text served as the council’s executive session.

“That text messaging is problematic. Basically, was that our executive session?” Williams asked.

The conversation moved back to the interview process and how they should be conducted. The interview process will be conducted via a public zoom session on Thursday, Dec. 17.

Councilwoman Sandra Thornton asked if there was a way to limit the number of questions each councilmember could ask.

Ledbetter said he felt they have a certain standard for questioning each candidate.

“We do need to have a certain standard of which we approach these questions for each candidate. I think to make this fair, it would make sense that we asked the same questions of all three candidates,” Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter also suggested that the council should limit the number of questions to three.

Williams offered a rebuttal to that suggestion saying she thought there should be more than three questions, and there should be a plan going into the interview process.

Williams also expressed concern about the lack of diversity of the candidate pool.

“The diversity of our pool is a concern of mine, especially considering the demographics of our city and the people that come through this court,” Williams said.

Thornton and Williams, who are both Black, then got into a back and forth on the topic of diversity.

Thornton asked Williams what she meant by her statement.

Williams, seeking clarification, asked if Thornton was referring to the demography of the people that go through the municipal court. Thornton agreed, saying, “yes.”

“What do you think it is? You think it predominately African American, you think it’s predominantly any ethnicity?” Williams asked.

Thornton responded by saying she did not know.

Williams continued by saying diversity should not be an overriding factor in making a selection for the municipal court judge position, but she did say she felt the pool should have some diversity.

“In a community where probably nine out of 1o of the folks coming before this judge look like me and you, it would behoove us I think, to at least have some diversity in the pool of applicants that we are going to consider,” she said to Thornton.

Williams said she doesn’t want someone who is unqualified or doesn’t have a good track record either. Thornton followed up on Williams’ answer.

“On the application, there was no way to tell from me reading the applicants, I couldn’t tell what race they were,” she said.

Trammel then steered the conversation back to how many questions each council member will ask, which led to a discussion on where the interview questions will come from.

Thornton asked City Manager Ed Moon if the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) could provide sample questions. Williams wanted to make sure she would be able to form her own questions to be added to the list.

“We have gone through this process many times from police chiefs to municipal court judges and various other appointed staff and in each one of those cases, [city] staff has prepared questions for the council members and council members have taken those questions and asked those questions. We can do that again,” Moon said. “We certainly can get input from the council as well as other organizations.”

Following the discussion, it was determined that the interviews will be conducted via public Zoom sessions, with each council member asking two questions.

On Thursday, Wilcox will interview at 5 p.m., followed by Baker at 5:45 p.m. and Jones at 6:30 p.m.