McComb Mayor Quordiniah Lockley appeared before the city’s civil service commissioners Wednesday morning to inform them of changes to the fire chief’s job, based on a legal opinion supporting the removal of the position from civil service protections.
Commission members met Lockley with their own legal opinion saying those changes can’t be made.
Lockley said the city board made its decision based on a legal decision from attorney Tommy Siler of the Phelps Dunbar law firm in Jackson, which said the fire chief “cannot serve at the will and pleasure of the board and be covered by civil service.”
Siler’s opinion leans on an attorney general’s opinion issued in 1997 to the city of Columbus which, like McComb, operates under a special charter.
Commission chairman Don Lazarus responded by reading an attorney general’s opinion issued to the commission this month, which pointed out the specific mention of McComb in the statute establishing civil service and said the Mississippi Code would supercede McComb’s charter in this instance.
“When you write the attorney general for an opinion, a lot depends on how you ask the question,” Lockley said. “Nowhere in there did I hear you reference the will and pleasure of the board. This board will not override the city.”
Lockley and Lazarus briefly argued the merits of their respective legal opinions with raised voices before Lockley made his exit.
“Opinions are opinions,” Lockley said. “If you feel we did wrong, you can sue us.”
After Lockley’s departure, the commission members pondered the source of the “will and pleasure” Lockley claimed as the right of the board to hire or fire the fire chief, as well as the police chief.
Whatever its source, commission member Larry Dorr said he believes there is “no conflict between the will and pleasure of the board and civil service. It just means if one (of the chiefs) is terminated, it’s gotta be for cause.”
Section 98-48 of the city charter says that both the police chief and the fire chief “shall be appointed by the board of mayor and selectmen upon the advice and recommendation of the city administrator and pursuant to the rules and regulations of the civil service commission of the city.”
Neither Lockley nor City Administrator Kelvin Butler returned messages Wednesday afternoon seeking information on whether that section has been amended to remove reference to the civil service commission, or whether the board’s votes during this term can be considered to have amended the charter.
Butler remained at the commission meeting to plead the board’s case after Lockley provided him a copy of the city’s legal opinion.
He pointed out how the attorney general’s office had opined in Columbus’s favor in Siler’s analysis of the 1997 AG’s opinion, and Lazarus noted that Columbus has a different charter from McComb.
“Based on that (1997) opinion, the fire chief is not under civil service and serves at the will and pleasure of the board,” Butler pressed.
“Based on how this board has performed, I’d say it’s the poster child for (the need for) civil service,” Dorr replied.
Commission member Terrance Turner also said he believed the civil service protections should remain and don’t conflict with the board’s hiring power.
“We’re not in a position to dictate who the city can hire and fire,” Turner said. “We’re here to rule whether it’s just or not.”
“I think the mayor said if we think they’re wrong, we can sue,” Lazarus said. “We’ll take that under advisement. The chiefs might have a case. We’ll talk to other people who are smart about what to do.”
Dorr and Lazarus urged Butler to give a copy of their opinion to board attorney Angela Cockerham to examine and make a recommendation.
“I think it’s a matter of definition, and something’s being defined wrong,” Dorr said. “If we need to go to court, I’m not opposed to that.”