Miller raises concerns about board attorney applicants

District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller
Staff Writer

As applications flooded the Oktibbeha County administrator's office, so did a few concerns from one Oktibbeha County supervisor.

District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller told the Starkville Daily News she sent an email to each supervisor, voicing some of her concerns about four board attorney applicants concerning possible conflicts of interest.

Friday marked the application deadline for the vacant board attorney position, following the death of longtime Board Attorney Jack Brown.

Nine applications were submitted, including Haley M. Brown, Marty Haug, Jay Hurdle, Bennie Jones Jr., Benjamin D. Lang, Chad Montgomery, Johnny Moore, Lydia Quarles and Rob Roberson.

In the email provided to the Starkville Daily News, Miller said Haug, who currently serves as a Justice Court judge, would be in violation of Judicial Canons. Canon 2(a) of the Mississippi Code of Judicial Conduct states a judge should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of his or her activities.

"If he was board attorney, this is a conflict because he is representing the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Department as Board Attorney and then is supposed to be an 'unbiased, objective' judge in Justice Court over trials where the Sheriff's Department has charged someone with a crime," Miller said in the email.

While there is not an ethics opinion on a Justice Court Judge acting as a board attorney, Miller said per Mississippi Ethics Opinion No. 95-079-E, serving as both a city judge and city board attorney was an ethics violation.

As for other violations, Miller said having Haug as the board attorney would mean he would serve in both the judicial and executive branch, which is a violation of the separation of powers doctrine in the Mississippi Constitution.

Miller referenced section two of the Mississippi Constitution, which states no person or collection of persons, being one or belonging to one of these departments, shall exercise any power properly belonging to either of the others. The acceptance of an office in either of said departments shall, of itself, and at once, vacate any and all offices held by the person so accepting in either of the other departments.

"Haug can't be both board attorney and justice court judge because as board attorney he will, to a certain degree, be part of the mechanism that handles the Justice Court budget and send cases to Justice Court for ordinance violations, building code problems, garbage fees, etc," Miller said. "He can't be unbiased and represent the board's best interests when this occurs."

Miller said if Lang, who serves as a public defender for Oktibbeha County, were to become the board attorney, there would be a conflict per statute and by an ethics opinion.

Miller referenced  Mississippi Ethics Opinion No. 00-057-E, saying a board attorney for the county board of supervisors who accepts payment from county funds for services as an indigent counsel in the county youth court violates Mississippi Code §25-4-105(3)(a).

"This opinion states indigent counsel in youth court; however, is the same thing happening with Lang," Miller said.

Miller said Lang accepts money from Oktibbeha County as a public defender to represent clients charged with crimes by the Sheriff's Department in Justice Court and Circuit Court.

As for Roberson, who currently serves as a representative in the state legislature, Miller said serving as the board attorney and acting as a legislator is a conflict of interest because it violates the separation of powers doctrine in the Mississippi Constitution.

Miller said her concerns for Jones is similar to the ones she has for Haug, because Jones currently serves as a judge in West Point judge and Maben.

Miller cites his application to also be a violation of judicial canons. She said if Jones were to serve as the board attorney and be a judge, it would be a violation of Canon 2(a) of the Mississippi Code of Judicial Conduct, as well as a constitutional violation.

"All of these above applicants regularly appear in justice court and circuit court in this county representing criminal defendants against the Oktibbeha Sheriff's Department. This is also a conflict," Miller said. "Would they be willing to stop representing criminal defendants in Oktibbeha County to avoid a conflict if they are appointed board attorney?"

The Board of Supervisors will meet Monday morning at 9 a.m. where it will begin reviewing each application for the board attorney position.

As for the selection process, President of the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors Orlando Trainer said the board has not discussed how it will approach all nine of the applications.

He said the board may decide to go through some type of elimination process. Trainer suggested each supervisor could rank the individual applicants and the three individuals who receive the highest score would be interviewed.

He said if the board does not agree with the ranking process, then the board would need to extend the meeting for each applicant to be interviewed. He said it would be a daunting task to thoroughly interview nine candidates and make a fair assessment in one sitting.

As for a decision, Trainer said he doesn't expect the board to make a final decision for the position on Monday, but there is always a possibility.