JASPER (AP) – Jasper voters were being asked Tuesday whether three black city council members should be removed from office after they voted earlier this year to hire the first black police chief in the East Texas town notorious for a racial hate killing more than a decade ago.
The election, believed the first recall attempt in Jasper’s history, attracted the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, which assigned monitors to ensure the balloting complied with federal election laws barring discrimination.
Council members had voted 4-1 last spring to hire Rodney Pearson as Jasper’s first black police chief, splitting the vote along racial lines.
“If you’re black, African-American, in Jasper, that’s a very meaningful event considering its history,” said Cade Bernsen, a lawyer for the council members facing the recall vote.
The East Texas town became infamous after the 1998 murder of a black man, James Byrd Jr., who was chained by his ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged three miles down a bumpy rural road. Three white men were convicted of the hate crime slaying and two of them were sent to death row. One was executed just seven weeks ago.
A group calling itself the League of Concerned Voters organized the recall petition, accusing the council members of incompetence and misconduct for hiring Pearson, a veteran Texas Department of Public Safety trooper. Recall supporters say the chief was selected over more qualified applicants, including the former second-in-command who is white.
Those facing the recall vote are Tommy Adams, Willie Land and Terrya Norsworthy. Adams, in office since 2006, and Land, elected last year, represent districts within Jasper. Norsworthy, first elected in 2008, is an at-large member and the mayor pro-tem. The fourth black councilman who voted for Pearson is retiring and wasn’t on the recall ballot.
Bernsen described the election as “just a dirty real emotional deal, because it’s bringing the issue of race to the surface.”
“People had thought Jasper had healed after the James Byrd dragging,” he said. “In fact, it’s showing serious problems there.”
Backers of the three council members went to federal court to scrap the recall election, contending that it was racially motivated and challenging some of the signatures on the petitions as improper.
A federal magistrate said two weeks ago that the city charter provisions covering recalls was poorly written, but refused to block the election.
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