BY ANDY KANENGISER

Daily Journal

TUPELO - A trial has been set for July 10 on a lawsuit by black leaders seeking to eliminate two at-large seats on the Tupelo City Council.

But before the case goes before U.S. District Court Judge Mike Mills, both parties are arguing in pre-trial procedural motions.

The lawsuit contends citywide elections of the two at-large council seats dilute black voter strength under the "one person, one vote" concept of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In other words, plaintiffs allege, Tupelo's 70 percent white vote can always control those election results. The black population is about 30 percent.

Filed Monday, the latest court documents from attorneys for Tupelo city officials contend African-American plaintiffs are largely on a "fishing expedition" with their requests for a flood of information.

The information dispute goes before U.S. Magistrate Eugene Bogen. It's uncertain when he will issue a ruling.

Representing the city, attorneys William Murphree and Guy Mitchell argue that plaintiffs seek an "exorbitant amount of information" regarding the makeup of every Tupelo board and commission. They say the lawsuit does not involve any issue regarding appointments of such panels.

Plaintiffs also seek "a vast amount of information" regarding any civil rights lawsuit regarding claims of racial discrimination filed against Tupelo since 1980, the city lawyers say. The plaintiffs' quest for information regarding every Tupelo employee also has no relevance, they contend.

While the legal paper war continues, Lee County NAACP leader Robert Jamison, the lead plaintiff, argues that black citizens largely "don't have a voice" in Tupelo government. Mayor Ed Neelly is white and there's only one African-American, Nettie Davis of Ward 4, on the nine-member council.

"Blacks could have more of a voice if there were more on the council," Davis said Tuesday. "I've made my voice heard. I've gotten support from others on the City Council." Davis would not comment on the lawsuit.

Before a 1989 change, Tupelo operated with six wards and one-at-large council seat. Taking effect in 1993 were seven wards and two at-large seats. All Tupelo voters cast ballots for the at-large seats, while only the voters in each ward can vote for its representative.

Contact Andy Kanengiser at 678-1590 or andy.kanengiser@djournal.com

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