AG’s opinion says attorney payment may be illegal

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 15, 2004

[7/15/04]The Warren County Board of Supervisors’ arrangement for legal services may be illegal, an attorney general’s opinion says, and the board president said the matter is being studied.

The situation was brought to light by District 4 Supervisor Carl Flanders, the only new member of the board this year, who requested the opinion and also said his fellow supervisors have refused to make his objections part of their official record.

For eight years, supervisors have contracted with local attorney Randy Sherard, also a professional engineer for legal counsel.

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Sherard is paid an hourly rate, which he has said has resulted in a savings to the county over fees charged by previous board attorneys.

His rate, $100 per hour, yielded a total of $54,000 last year, and the attorney general’s opinion says a board attorney should be a county employee whose pay should not exceed a supervisor’s.

Board members are now paid $37,343 annually, but may accept state-authorized raises to $44,700 in October.

Upon taking office in January, Flanders voted with District 1 Supervisor David McDonald and District 5 Supervisor Richard George to retain Sherard as counsel.

Wednesday, District 3 Supervisor Charles Selmon said of the contract, “We’re looking at it, and we’re looking at the opinion.” He declined to say more, other than state audits of county operations have never questioned the contract or the payments to Sherard.

Selmon and District 2 Supervisor Michael Mayfield voted against hiring Sherard when new board terms started. At that time, the attorney’s hourly rate was also increased to $215.

Flanders said that when the county’s routine bills or claims docket was presented in June, he voted against paying Sherard and said he will continue to do so until the issue is resolved.

“We should have a contract that is consistent with (state law,)” Flanders said.

Mississippi Code section 19-3-47 says that supervisors may hire an attorney to serve as counsel to the board and sets the pay. The law also allows the county to contract separately for some specific legal services such as bond issues, title research or eminent domain proceedings.

Sherard works as the counsel to the board, attending meetings and providing legal advice, and he provides other legal services to the county.

Sherard referred questions about his contract to supervisors.

Jack Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, said today the type of contract Warren County uses is unusual in the state. He said board attorneys are full-time employees paid the same amount as supervisors, as the code section states.

“I think that’s most every county,” Gregory said.

Flanders said he asked for the attorney general’s opinion after he was told Sherard’s contract with the county might not be legal. The written opinions are available to public officials who need interpretations of statutes. They are not as binding as, for example, a judicial decision.

Flanders also said his comments about voting against paying Sherard’s bill in June were left out of the board’s minutes by the other supervisors.

“They’ve censored me,” Flanders said.

Since 2000, the county board’s policy has been that minutes of their meetings reflect only actions taken and not comments made by board members or public. An Attorney General’s opinion that same year confirmed that under state law, meeting minutes need only show actions taken by the board.

The City of Vicksburg employs three full-time attorneys, but municipalities are under separate state code sections and the position of city attorney is an officer defined in the charter of the City of Vicksburg. City Attorney Nancy Thomas, who is also the head of the legal department, is paid $84,900 annually.By Mark J. Armstrong

marmstrong@vicksburgpost.com

[7/15/04]The Warren County Board of Supervisors’ arrangement for legal services may be illegal, an attorney general’s opinion says, and the board president said the matter is being studied.

The situation was brought to light by District 4 Supervisor Carl Flanders, the only new member of the board this year, who requested the opinion and also said his fellow supervisors have refused to make his objections part of their official record.

For eight years, supervisors have contracted with local attorney Randy Sherard, also a professional engineer for legal counsel.

Sherard is paid an hourly rate, which he has said has resulted in a savings to the county over fees charged by previous board attorneys.

His rate, $100 per hour, yielded a total of $54,000 last year, and the attorney general’s opinion says a board attorney should be a county employee whose pay should not exceed a supervisor’s.

Board members are now paid $37,343 annually, but may accept state-authorized raises to $44,700 in October.

Upon taking office in January, Flanders voted with District 1 Supervisor David McDonald and District 5 Supervisor Richard George to retain Sherard as counsel.

Wednesday, District 3 Supervisor Charles Selmon said of the contract, “We’re looking at it, and we’re looking at the opinion.” He declined to say more, other than state audits of county operations have never questioned the contract or the payments to Sherard.

Selmon and District 2 Supervisor Michael Mayfield voted against hiring Sherard when new board terms started. At that time, the attorney’s hourly rate was also increased to $215.

Flanders said that when the county’s routine bills or claims docket was presented in June, he voted against paying Sherard and said he will continue to do so until the issue is resolved.

“We should have a contract that is consistent with (state law,)” Flanders said.

Mississippi Code section 19-3-47 says that supervisors may hire an attorney to serve as counsel to the board and sets the pay. The law also allows the county to contract separately for some specific legal services such as bond issues, title research or eminent domain proceedings.

Sherard works as the counsel to the board, attending meetings and providing legal advice, and he provides other legal services to the county.

Sherard referred questions about his contract to supervisors.

Jack Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, said today the type of contract Warren County uses is unusual in the state. He said board attorneys are full-time employees paid the same amount as supervisors, as the code section states.

“I think that’s most every county,” Gregory said.

Flanders said he asked for the attorney general’s opinion after he was told Sherard’s contract with the county might not be legal. The written opinions are available to public officials who need interpretations of statutes. They are not as binding as, for example, a judicial decision.

Flanders also said his comments about voting against paying Sherard’s bill in June were left out of the board’s minutes by the other supervisors.

“They’ve censored me,” Flanders said.

Since 2000, the county board’s policy has been that minutes of their meetings reflect only actions taken and not comments made by board members or public. An Attorney General’s opinion that same year confirmed that under state law, meeting minutes need only show actions taken by the board.

The City of Vicksburg employs three full-time attorneys, but municipalities are under separate state code sections and the position of city attorney is an officer defined in the charter of the City of Vicksburg. City Attorney Nancy Thomas, who is also the head of the legal department, is paid $84,900 annually.