Bill to toughen civil service laws dies|[03/26/08]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 26, 2008

An effort to tighten state civil service laws in the aftermath of a successful suit against the City of Vicksburg by a former Vicksburg firefighter has died in a committee.

Separate bills filed by Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, and Sen. Briggs Hopson III, R-Vicksburg failed to redefine allowable political activity by municipal employees.

The bill came at the urging of Mayor Laurence Leyens after a federal lawsuit was settled last year involving former Vicksburg Fire Lt. James Montgomery over his 2005 suspension and demotion stemming from a letter to the editor Montgomery wrote critical of the Leyens administration. The city’s position in demoting and suspending Montgomery after Leyens won re-election was that the letter amounted to “political activity” as prohibited for civil servants. Montgomery’s position in the federal case was that the letter was free speech. Vicksburg officials have turned down repeated requests to disclose terms of the settlement.

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The House version would have had the state statutes mirror that of the federal Hatch Act, which has more precise definitions for federal employees who have civil services protection.

Separately, five bills filed by Vicksburg and Warren County legislators are pending in Local and Private Legislation committees in the House and Senate as lawmakers enter the final weeks of this year’s session.

Among them is a bill in the Senate committee sponsored by Hopson to allow county supervisors to donate $265,000 in public funds to a dozen nonprofit agencies for charitable purposes. More than $615,000 was budgeted to such groups in this year’s spending plan.

The groups include the Boys and Girls Club of Vicksburg, Central Mississippi Prevention Services, Jacqueline House African-American Museum, Mississippi Food Network, The Initiative, Triumph Ministries’ tutorial program, Vicksburg Family Development Services, Vicksburg Main Street Program, Vicksburg Warren Humane Society, WWISCAA, We Care Community Services and Women’s Restoration Shelter.

Public donations to charity by a county board are allowable only by legislative act.

Also under consideration are bills to allow the City of Vicksburg to contribute in-kind services to The Initiative, a child-care program for single mothers attending school, and to contribute funds to Keep Vicksburg-Warren Beautiful and Beulah Cemetery. Inmate labor and in-kind services would also be a part of the city’s pledge for the cemetery on Martin Luther King Drive.

A request to allow the city to rent cell space in Louisiana, specifically Madison and Tensas parishes, has been filed again. Similar efforts to gain permission have failed, leaving the city with using a facility in Issaquena County for inmate overflow from the Warren County Jail. Leyens has said that costs at least $400,000 per year and that jails across the river are cheaper and closer.

Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, filed the bill despite past stated doubts as to the rest of the Legislature passing it.

Another bill, authored by Rep. Alex Monsour, R-Vicksburg, would elevate penalties for damage to coin-operated devices such as vending machines, parking meters, and pay phones to malicious mischief. Depending on the value of the machine, punishments will exceed five years in prison and a $10,000 fine if the bill passes. This week, the bill was amended to include the theft of livestock as an additional offense punishable by the revised malicious mischief definition.