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Ousted Black Alabama mayor will return to office under settlement agreement

Editor’s note: This is the third part of a three-part series. Read previous entries here: Part 1. Part 2.

After almost four years of legal wrangling, rekeyed locks, dueling town councils, backroom intrigue and viral media coverage, the first Black man to become mayor of Newbern, Alabama, is a judge’s signature away from finally serving the remainder of his term.

In a memorandum of understanding and release filed on the evening of June 21 and obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center, attorneys for Patrick Braxton, along with other plaintiffs; and the Town of Newbern, the defendant, agreed to settle Braxton’s lawsuit, which sought to have Braxton returned to office as mayor.

The settlement agreement has been referred to U.S. District Judge Kristi K. DuBose of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama in Mobile.

In the memorandum, the Town of Newbern agreed with the plaintiffs that the failure to hold elections in Newbern violated the voting rights of citizens. According to the lawsuit, the predominantly Black town has never had an election in its 170-year history, violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting policies.

“The Parties agree that Defendant’s failure to administer elections prior to 2020 discriminated against Plaintiffs in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment, Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and that Defendant violated Plaintiffs’ right to vote under the First and Fourteenth Amendments,” states the memorandum, which also releases Mayor Haywood Stokes III and other individuals who held positions in the Town of Newbern from any admission of wrongdoing.

The agreement preempts a trial scheduled to begin Sept. 9 in Selma to resolve the lawsuit Braxton filed in 2022 after he was ousted from office.

• TIMELINE: Newbern 2020 Election

Braxton said he missed a call from his attorneys early on the evening of June 21 and had not had a chance to talk to them when the SPLC reached out for comment about the settlement, which declares Braxton the lawful mayor of Newbern with all the powers, authority, privileges, responsibilities and benefits of that office.

The agreement also calls for an independent audit to be conducted of the town’s funds and assets soon after the memorandum is executed to protect both parties from allegations of wrongdoing.

“That’s great news,” Braxton said. “I will feel better when I have the keys to the town hall in my hand and we can get started working to make our town better for everyone in it.”

Under the terms of the agreement, Braxton will return to the office he held for 100 days from Nov. 2, 2020, to Feb. 10, 2021. All other town offices, including council members and the town clerk, are declared vacant. Any officeholders shall resign and cease all work on town business, under the agreement.

Braxton said he has been talking to several community members about serving on the council, reaching out to members of both the Black and white communities to build a coalition. Once Braxton is in office, under the agreement, he will have 14 days to submit his list of volunteers for the town’s five council seats to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey for the governor’s appointment, in accordance with state law.

But if Ivey does not make the requested appointments, the Hale County Probate Court judge will call for a special election to fill the vacancies. That election, if needed, should be held prior to Dec. 31, 2024, under the agreement.

State law also requires that the mayor and members of the town council be elected at-large in a general election every four years, but from 1965 to 2019, the town did not hold or make any preparations to hold an election for mayor or council members, according to the memorandum.

The memorandum also calls for Braxton to be given access to all official documents, accounts and town property within 30 days of DuBose’s signature.

The parties also agreed that Braxton will be responsible for conducting the regularly scheduled municipal election in 2025 with the town council. Additionally, they agreed to hold a public town meeting at the Newbern Town Hall no later than Aug. 30 to provide residents of Newbern with information about the settlement agreement.

In 2020, Braxton was sworn in as the first Black mayor of Newbern in its 170-year history. He ran unopposed, the only candidate who filed the necessary paperwork and fee to qualify for mayor. No one, neither incumbent nor challenger, qualified to run for mayor or any of the five council seats in the election scheduled for Aug. 25, 2020.

Because he was the only candidate on the ballot, Braxton became mayor-elect on June 22, 2020, without a vote being cast. He was the only mayoral candidate to qualify for the 2020 municipal election. And he was the only candidate in the town’s history to qualify for any municipal office in Newbern.

Despite qualifying for office, Braxton and the Black volunteer town council he appointed were ultimately replaced by the white mayor and predominantly white council members who formerly held the seats, also without a vote ever being cast.

According to documents the SPLC has obtained over the last year through multiple public record requests, Newbern Town Attorney William Holmes arranged with the Alabama secretary of state’s office to move the date of the 2020 council seat elections back six weeks during the lame duck period after Braxton was named mayor-elect. Stokes and the four members of the town council who had served with him, all but one of whom are white, then filed the required forms and, because no one else qualified, they were surreptitiously sworn into office as council members 10 days after Braxton and his four volunteer council members swore their oaths.

In the interim, the members of the Stokes administration blocked the transfer of city financial accounts to Braxton, obstructed his access to the town’s mailbox, had the town’s records moved and, eventually, changed the locks on the town hall, records show.

After Braxton refused to meet with them to form a government, they voted to oust him, then voted for Stokes to resume his position as mayor.

Braxton was the first candidate in at least 50 years to properly qualify for office, records show. Stokes had inherited the mayor’s office from his father, Haywood Stokes Jr., in 2008. A search of Hale County court files found no record of any municipal elections for mayor or council ever being held in Newbern.

Leah Wong, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who represented Braxton in his lawsuit, did not reply to an email for comment on the proposed settlement. Attempts to reach Haywood Stokes III for comment were unsuccessful.

Image at top: Patrick Braxton stands in front of the Newbern Town Hall in Alabama. (Credit: Dwayne Fatherree)