Livingston — Springfield must elect a new leader now that Mayor Charles Martin was court-ordered to resign Monday morning after pleading guilty to criminal mischief related to a ticket-fixing scheme that also toppled the town’s police chief.
Despite the conviction, Judge Bruce Bennett was sympathetic to the mayor of nearly 30 years. After receiving his sentence, Martin apologized for embarrassing Springfield and explained that he had not meant to break the law.
“You don’t need to apologize to me, Mr. Mayor,” Bennett said. “I think I know bad public officials (when I see them), and I’m not looking at one.”
In 2011, a then-town police officer said he felt threatened by Martin and former Police Chief Jimmy Jones to reduce a woman’s drunken driving arrest as a favor to a friend of the mayor. According to the officer’s report, he eventually relented and saw the chief throw away his initial paperwork related to the arrest.
“What happened here was wrong. It happened the wrong way,” said prosecutor David Caldwell. “We can’t just allow these things to go untouched. … We have to hold people accountable.”
Martin’s attorney Lance Unglesby has argued that the mayor misunderstood the officer’s discretion to change a charge.
“It was an error in judgement, and that’s all it was,” he said outside the courthouse Monday after the sentencing.
Jones and Martin initially faced four felony charges in relation to the incident, but the state offered each a plea deal that let them avoid jail time in exchange for stepping down and pleading guilty to the misdemeanor charge.
The state was comfortable allowing them to plea to misdemeanors because investigators found no evidence of repeated abuses of power, Caldwell has said.
He added Monday that there was no sign Martin tried to change the drunken driving arrest in exchange for any other favors.
Caldwell, the head of the Attorney General’s Public Corruption Special Prosecution Unit, was brought in after the District Attorney’s Office recused itself.
Jones accepted the deal in April and was ordered to resign the same day.
But Caldwell said he spoke with the Springfield aldermen and they asked him to allow Martin to stay on for a short time as the town works toward installing its own water system. Martin said bidding on the project would begin this week.
Bennett gave Martin 90 days before he must step down, but he must cede all his administrative control of the Police Department to Mayor Pro Tem Tommy Abels.
In addition to resigning, Martin will serve two years of probation, pay $550 in fines and fees, and perform 32 hours of community service, which Martin requested he be allowed to serve by cleaning up the Springfield Cemetery.
After his 90 days are up, the Board of Aldermen will appoint an interim mayor until the next election, Martin said. The next date is Oct. 24, for the gubernatorial primary.
Martin has served as the Springfield mayor for nearly 30 years and won re-election in 2013 as the criminal case was pending. He told reporters Monday that he did not think the case would stain his legacy.
“I’m sorry that it came to this. … I believe in God, and I always try to do right,” he said.
Martin added that if he could return to 2011, he would still try to help his friend but by going to the district attorney rather than the arresting officer.
Prosecutors pushed to remove Jones and Martin from office for the good of Springfield, Caldwell said. If someone were to sue the town — such as for a civil rights violation — having a mayor and police chief with spotty criminal records would be a liability, he explained.
“This is to protect the town,” the prosecutor said.
While Bennett accepted the plea deal and ordered Martin’s resignation, he made it known that he did not consider the crime serious.
“It’s just not a big deal in my view,” he said.
On a scale of one to 10, he rated the severity of Martin’s transgression at a 0.5. He said the mayor has a “fine reputation.”
Yet he also noted that “the people have certain expectations of their public officials.”
Immediately after he handed down Martin’s sentence, the judge summed up his feelings:
“Cases like this are just tragic.”
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.