Analysis: Quirky or serious, legal opinions guide officials

Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ Can a Mississippi school district give financial rewards to students who do well on college entrance exams?

Can a city government remove a dilapidated building if the owner does not do it?

Is the sheriff’s son allowed to work as a volunteer deputy?

These are among the questions that government officials have asked Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch this year.

The attorney general’s staff does research and writes legal opinions to guide state and local government operations. Those opinions are posted on the attorney general’s website, giving the public a glimpse at some issues that officials are considering.

Willie Griffin, attorney for the Washington County Board of Supervisors, asked about nepotism. May the sheriff’s son serve as an unpaid auxiliary deputy? If so, may he use county equipment? Can the sheriff’s department sponsor the son to attend a law enforcement training academy?

The attorney general’s office said yes to the sheriff’s son working as an unpaid deputy and using county equipment. It said no to sponsoring the son at the training academy because that would run afoul of the ban on public officials compensating close relatives.

The superintendent of the Pascagoula-Gautier School District, Wayne Rodolfich, asked whether the district could provide monetary incentives to students based on the ACT, a standardized test used for college admissions. He also asked whether the district may award monetary incentives to its employees based on ACT improvements.

The attorney general’s office said no to giving money to students for test scores, explaining that doing so would be an unlawful donation under Section 66 of the Mississippi Constitution. The attorney general’s office wrote that under the constitution’s Section 96, incentives may be paid to employees if the arrangement is set in advance.

In a scenario that’s begging to be turned into a quirky piece of short fiction, Alton Shaw, mayor of Wesson _ population 1,880 _ asked if the town government could demolish the remains of a burned house.

“The occupant of the residence now has moved into an outbuilding or shed on the property and has made it his permanent residence,” the attorney general’s office wrote in a summary. “The building is in extremely poor condition and the municipal governing authorities have received numerous complaints from citizens about its condition.”

The answer: Yes. State law allows a municipality “to clean up private property it has determined to be a menace to the public health and safety of the community.”

Aelicia L. Thomas, attorney for the 250-person town of Pace, asked the attorney general what action, if any, the Board of Aldermen could take for the mayor’s “willful refusal” to carry about the board’s orders. She also asked: If the aldermen cut the mayor’s pay, could the mayor ask the city clerk to pay him the original amount instead of the lower one?

The opinion said that aldermen, going forward, should not encroach on the mayor’s executive-branch powers.

“If a Mayor’s salary has been lawfully reduced, the Mayor would not have the authority to direct the City Clerk to write his/her paycheck for the amount he/she previously received instead of the newly adjusted salary,” the opinion said.

In a somber matter, Katie Blount, director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, asked whether ancient Native American remains can be buried on state-owned land. Representatives of the Muscogee Creek Nation contacted the department about the desecration of a burial site and said they would like the remains to be reburied as close as possible.

The Department of Archives and History wants to create reburial sites that are optional for tribal nations that no longer own lands in Mississippi, according to the opinion summary. The attorney general’s office said state law would not prohibit that. It also noted that federal laws govern how Native American remains and funerary objects should be treated.


Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter:

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