Judge’s injunction prevents firing of state health officer

Published 12:50 am Sunday, February 4, 2007

A judge issued a temporary injunction Friday barring the Mississippi Board of Health from firing state Health Officer Dr. Brian Amy.

Amy’s attorney had earlier sent at least seven board members a letter threatening legal action if Amy was removed from the $213,315-a-year post. When members of the board arrived at a meeting Friday to discuss Amy’s future, a deputy sheriff handed them copies of the judge’s order.

Amy has held the job since 2002, but state senators over the past several months held a series of public hearings to explore allegations that the Health Department has been ineffective in protecting Mississippians from diseases. Amy did not immediately respond to a message Friday.

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Dr. Ed Hill of Tupelo, one of the seven board members who attended Friday’s meeting, said the board decided not to vote on Amy’s status after receiving the injunction. The order, issued by Hinds County Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas, prohibited the board “from taking any action to terminate the employment” of Amy.

“We certainly respect the court and will abide by the restraining order,” Hill said.

The board is made up of 13 members, and the chairman and vice chairman were among those who did not show up. It was not clear why several board members were absent, but one, Norman Price of McComb, sent a resignation letter to Gov. Haley Barbour on Friday. Price was appointed by Barbour’s predecessor, Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, and had just under 17 months left on his term.

Price said “recent events” have distracted his attention away from his duties as CEO of Southwest Mississippi Medical Center.

“I pray the future focus of the board and agency will be to improve the health status of all Mississippians,” he said. “I thinks it’s been distracted, to say the least.”

The board members in attendance set another meeting for Feb. 28, but gave no indication of what action will be taken then.

Amy’s attorney, Sam Begley of Jackson, said Friday that violating the temporary restraining order, which prohibits the board from taking any action against Amy for 10 days, could bring sanctions from the court.

“Maybe we can work something out in those 10 days,” Begley said.

If nothing can be worked out, Begley said Amy can go before a judge to show that the Board of Health “is acting unconstitutionally.”

Begley said the Board of Health should have already passed a resolution announcing its intentions to fire Amy, presented evidence on the grounds for dismissal and let Amy defend himself.

In the letter to board members, Begley said Amy would sue if he was fired Friday.

Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, who has been one of Amy’s most vocal critics, said Begley threatened to subpoena him.

“With threats like this, it’s an attempt to keep the Senate from discussing the issues,” Nunnelee said at the Capitol Friday. “We cannot allow the great deliberative body to be restricted in our ability to discuss the issues of the day.”

The Senate is considering legislation to overhaul Health Department leadership. Friday’s Board of Health meeting came just days after Senate committees approved a bill that would fire the entire board.

Hill said the legislation did not prompt Friday’s meeting.

“We did not discuss that issue at all,” Hill said.

The bill, drafted by Nunnelee’s committee, was aimed at Amy, who some lawmakers say has failed in his role as head of the Department of Health.

The original bill would’ve removed Amy from his post immediately if the bill were signed into law, but that provision was stripped out in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“It was a one-man dog and pony show,” Begley said of the legislation. “A powerful committee chairman can get other members to fall in line and Sen. Nunnelee is the catalyst in my estimation.”

The legislation was drafted after testimony during several public hearings revealed the Health Department failed to warn the public about disease outbreaks, including two dozen cases of West Nile virus. Some lawmakers also say Board of Health members had unchecked influence on health regulations that pertain to the businesses they run.

Despite the problems, and a November “no confidence” vote by the Senate Public Health Committee, the Board of Health voted 7-5 on Dec. 13 to keep Amy on the job. Some lawmakers have said the only reason the board didn’t fire Amy then is because members were afraid he would sue.

The board’s failure to remove Amy in the past prompted Nunnelee and others to take the position that that board is unwilling or unable to remove the health officer. That could cost the board members their jobs.

The law authorizing the Health Department’s existence expires on June 30, 2007, and many lawmakers would rather restructure the board than allow the department to be reconstituted under its current leadership.

The bill is Senate Bill 2764.