State Senator Josh Harkins just taught Jim Hood and the Mayor of Bay St. Louis that the old proverb "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" is still true. The Attorney General and controversial Mayor teamed up to gut a "good government" Harkins bill that was passed by the legislature a year ago. The bill banned cities from paying the salaries of all interim municipal appointments after six months. It would fix the problem of Mayors tagging their appointments as "interim" so they could avoid confirmation votes. However, Mayor Les Fillingame went whining to the A.G. and Mr. Hood was more than happy to help him. Their shenanigans did not go unnoticed and Senator Harkins got a stronger bill passed and signed into law this week that put the two officials in their place.
One problem in Mississippi government is the use of interim appointments. Mayors have repeatedly abused this practice when they fear a crony can't get confirmed. Checks and balances are ignored while city councils and boards of aldermen have little remedy save going to court.
Many times the interim appointments are not qualified to serve in their appointed positions (See Willie Bell). The Mayor will then attempt to make an end run around the entire confirmation process and call him an "interim" appointment but then never submits his nomination for confirmation. It makes a mockery out of the entire concept of checks and balances. Mayors Johnny Dupree, Chokwe Lumumba, Les Fillingame, and Harvey Johnson all thought they were above the law as they loved to use interim appointments, checks and balances be damned.
The same hijinks also take place with boards and commissions. Members are allowed to serve long after their terms expired. Millions of dollars are spent, hiring and firings of employees take place, and votes are made by members who should have no vote but hey, it's Mississippi.
Senator Harkins authored a bill that would stop this political malpractice. The bill is not a sexy topic. It won't garner media headlines. However, it is a step in the right direction for bringing good government to Mississippi and making it less corrupt. SB #2587 became law a year ago. It stated:
SECTION 1. (1) No person shall serve in an interim or hold-over capacity for longer than one hundred eighty (180) days after the expiration of the term to which he or she was appointed in a position that is required by law to be filled by appointment of the governing body of a municipality, or by mayoral appointment with the advice and consent of the council or aldermen, including positions on boards, commissions or authorities.That is it. There is no grandfather clause. The money is cut off and the State Auditor can recover any money paid to the interim employee after the 180 day term expires. It should be pretty simple to enforce but then again, this is Mississippi.
(2) If such position is not filled within one hundred eighty (180) days after the expiration of the term, no municipal funds may be expended to compensate any person serving in the position.
SECTION 2. This act shall take effect and be in force from and after July 1, 2016.
The first challenge to this law took place in Bay St. Louis, where good ole boy politics reigns supreme. The Mayor fired the building inspector seven years ago and appointed a close friend who was not qualified to the job on an interim basis. He has never been confirmed by the city council and is not a certified building inspector. Such things mean nothing to Mayor Fillingame. Interim means eternal as far as he is concerned. The city council challenged his employment after the law became effective on July 1, 2016. However, Mayor Fillingame and city attorney Donald Rafferty went running to Jim Hood for some cover and he gave it to them. Earlier post with copy of opinion.
Special Assistant Attorney General Phil Carter took a break from chasing groundhogs and turned the law upside down as he issued an Attorney General's Opinion on the new law.
Mr. Carter states that since the law didn't specify it was retroactive, then the 180-day clock did not begin to run until July 1, 2016. Someone may have served as an interim appointee for two years when July 1, 2016 rolled around but Jim Hood's office says he gets six more months to serve. Wait a second, Mr. Carter didn't say that but said he could serve for another eighteen months. Read it and weep:
We are of the opinion that the 180-day period would begin at the end of any term that expires on or after July 1, 2016.
We understand that the City of Bay Saint Louis will conduct its next general election in June 2017. Section 21-15-1 provides that the new term will begin on July 1 after such general election "that is not on a weekend." Since July 1, 2017, falls on a Saturday, the new term will begin on July 3, 2017, at which time the 180-day period for anyone holding over would begin.The law said nothing about old terms or new terms but damned if Mr. Carter didn't create it out of thin air. The matter was settled and the forces of corruption in Mississippi won yet another battle - or so they thought.
Senator Harkins submitted a similar bill this year in the legislative session that was more direct in dealing with this problem. The bill passed the Senate but died in committee over in the House. Senator Harkins refused to take no for an answer and attached the dead bill's language to HB #51 in the Senate. The amended bill passed the Senate. The House voted to concur and Governor Phil Bryant signed the bill yesterday.
Here is the language of the new law. Read it word for word:
SECTION 2. Section 21-15-41, Mississippi Code of 1972, is amended as follows:The law also deals with boards and commissions. Any votes taken by board members more than 180 days after their terms expire are null and void. No more sitting around on the JMAA Board of Commissioners and voting on budgets two years after the term expired. This will apply to municipal school boards such as Jackson and Pearl as well.
21-15-41. (1) No person shall serve in an interim or hold-over capacity for longer than one hundred eighty (180) days * * * in a position that is required by law to be filled by appointment of the governing body of a municipality, or by mayoral appointment with the advice and consent of the council or aldermen * * *. * * * If such position is not filled within one hundred eighty (180) days after the expiration of the position's term, or within one hundred eighty (180) days after the date of appointment if an interim appointment, the hold-over service or interim appointment shall terminate and no municipal funds may thereafter be expended to compensate * * * the person serving in the position. Further, any action or vote taken by such person after the one-hundred-eighty-day period shall be invalid and without effect. If a council or board of aldermen rejects, or otherwise fails to confirm, an individual submitted by the mayor for appointment, the mayor may not resubmit or reappoint the same individual for that position during the remainder of the mayor's current term in office. Copy of bill.
The second section makes the law retroactive so no funds can be used to pay the salaries of any interim appointments that require a confirmation vote
(2) It is the intent of the Legislature that the provisions of this section shall apply retroactively to all appointees serving in a hold-over or interim capacity on the effective date of this act and for such appointees, the one hundred eighty-day limitation period shall commence to run on the effective date of this act.
Take that, Mr. Attorney General. Phil Carter is not the only one who can play hocus pocus with the law. The new law means that no compensation can be paid to interim appointments who have served more than 180 days come July 2, 2017. The State Auditor will be able to recover those funds if they are paid in violation of the law. Any members of municipal boards or commissions can't vote if they are serving more than six months past their term.
Kingfish note: Take that, Jim Hood. Make no mistake. Phil Carter wrote this opinion to give cover to to Mayor Fillingame. Nothing like protecting public corruption among the good ole boys in Mississippi and that is exactly what Mr. Carter did.
Good job to Senator Harkins who didn't take no for an answer, didn't quit, and saw things through til the end . Their are going to be a few howls come July 1 but they are the howls we like to hear.