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Chip Drago
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Ludgood resigns District 1 seat on Mobile County Commission

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Merceria Ludgood this morning resigned her District 1 seat on the Mobile County Commission in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that vindicated Gov.
Bob Riley's authority to fill the vacancy by appointment.

Riley had appointed Republican Juan Chastang to fill the remainder of the term left open when former County Commissioner Sam Jones was elected mayor of Mobile.

Democratic officials challenged the appointment and Ludgood, formerly an attorney in the county's legal department, won a special election. And furthermore, Ludgood is unopposed in the general election in November, making certain her return to office Nov. 12.

Despite her absence from office, Ludgood said she would  continue to work unofficially on District 1 projects as a "citizen commissioner."

It was not immediately clear whether Chastang would automatically be reinstated in the position or whether the seat was again vacant for Riley to fill by appointment.

A call to Chastang's cell phone went unanswered and a message seeking comment was not immediately returned. Since his departure from public office here, Chastang has launched a sandwich shop in Montgomery.

Attorneys familiar with the dispute have conflicting opinions on exactly where the situation resides in the aftermath of Ludgood's departure from office. One lawyer indicated that matters are simply restored as closely as possible to their existence prior to the court's ouster of Chastang. He could resume his quarters in the county commission offices this afternoon, if he chooses, the attorney suggested.   

In a statement announcing her decision, Ludgood noted that Riley's position was upheld May 27, 2008, in the case of Riley v. (Yvonne) Kennedy. On Aug. 13, 2008, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of AL, upon agreement of the parties, dismissed all matters pertaining to this challenge brought by the plaintiffs.

According to Ludgood, the parties agreed to return to state court to resolve the dispute.

"Last Friday, I was provided a copy of an unsolicited opinion from the Attorney General (Troy King) dated August 20, 2008, wherein he opined that should Mobile County pay me beyond August 13, 2008, it does so at its peril, a thinly veiled threat that such payment may be charged back to the Commissioners jointly and severally," Ludgood's statement reads.

The Mobile County Commission Monday voted to request an Attorney General’s opinion on Ludgood's status.

As the attorney for Riley in the matter, King's opinion "will come as no surprise," according to Ludgood.

A court's ruling rather than King's opinion should be sought, said Ludgood.

Ludgood's statement continued:

"When the voters of District One elected me it was by virtue of a court ordered special election. I did not usurp my way onto the Commission. I have remained here awaiting a judicial determination on the question of whether Juan Chastang returns to the seat by operation of law or whether the Governor may appoint someone else.

I have also remained because I did not want to see District 1, once again without representation. Since I assumed office on Oct. 17, 2007, I have worked night and day, literally, to address the many issues in District 1 that had been neglected, chief among them was helping to prepare communities for the changes they will experience as a result as the Thyssen Krupp steel mill construction in the short term and the more long term issues related community development concerns.

My decision to seek this office was never about me, it was always about providing the best representation for District One."

The legal morass left Ludgood in a dilemma, she said.

"Today I stand between a rock and a hard place," she said in a press conference this morning.

Without representation, District 1 citizens might get short-changed as the commission makes decisions and determines priorities, said Ludgood, who also acknowledged her precarious legal position and her unwillingness to defy the law.

Ludgood pointed a finger at a fellow commissioner in her predicament.

"I do not want county government thrown into disarray because Commission President Stephen Nodine is bent on removing me by any means necessary, even one that is legally dubious, leaving a third of Mobile County unrepresented."

Dragging him into the squabble was "ridiculous, just ridiculous," said Nodine.

"It's not between me and and anybody," said Nodine. "It's    between the federal goverment and the state goverment, not between Steve Nodine and anybody and anything. For her to insinuate that I had anything to do with removing her is ridiculous, just ridiculous. She was duly elected by the people. The Supreme Court removed her, not Steve Nodine. She's misinformed."

Nodine said he wished he had the influence that Ludgood apparently credits him with.

"The attorney general does what the attorney general does and I do what I do," said Nodine. "I'm a county commissioner. He's attorney general. I don't think I have much influence over the attorney general, the governor or the Supreme Court. Maybe I do and just don't know it."

Asked if he would encourage his fellow Republican and political ally, Gov. Riley, to appoint Ludgood to the newly-vacant District 1 seat, if the opportunity again falls to him, Nodine said, "Not after her statement. Why would I after she insinuated that I was in collusion with the governor and the attorney general? I want to make it clear to everybody that this is between the state government and the federal government and between the governor and the attorney general. I don't know how I can get any clearer than that."

Ludgood said she was unsure what course events would take, but it was "imperative that the Governor’s right to appoint be protected and not subverted by an Attorney General’s opinion that does not have the force of law."

She "strongly" urged the county legal department to seek a declaratory judgment "for the good of District 1 and for the good of the county."

Ludgood concluded that she was "a person of faith" who walks "by faith and not by sight" and that the unfolding events are "a part of God’s grand design for my life."