Senate votes to reduce health officers pay to $1

Published 8:02 pm Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Sen. Ralph Doxey says it’s time that Mississippi started paying state Health Officer Dr. Brian Amy “what he’s worth” — $1 a year.

A majority of the state Senate agreed, and passed a bill Tuesday that would slash Amy’s salary from $213,315 a year to $1.

Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said $1 “might be too much.”

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The salary reduction came in an amendment to a bill that would let Amy’s post and the entire state Board of Health expire on June 30. The agency itself would remain intact, and Amy’s position and the board would be reconstituted on July 1.

Doxey stood before the Senate holding up a copy of the state constitution that says the Legislature can reduce the salary of a department head for poor performance. The Senate voted overwhelmingly to slash Amy’s pay retroactively to Jan. 1.

“I hope it sends the right message,” Doxey said. “He’s not doing his job and laughs at us and threatens to sue; as a senator I won’t take that. In my opinion, $1 might be overpay.”

Amy, 56, did not immediately respond to messages left after work hours Tuesday.

Amy’s attorney, Sam Begley, said he did not think the salary reduction would make it through the legislative process.

“I think that’s silly that a deliberative body would do that,” Begley said. “I don’t think that’s serious on their part. I think that will be removed during the legislative process.”

The bill still must work its way through the House, where Public Health Chairman Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, has called Amy a “psychopath.”

Holland’s remark came after Amy obtained a court order last Friday to block the state Board of Health from considering whether to fire him.

The proposed reduction in Amy’s salary came after heated Senate debate over whether language should be added to the bill that would fire Amy immediately if the bill were to become law. When that amendment was defeated 24-22, Doxey suggested paying Amy “what he’s worth.”

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 failed to protect Mississippians from diseases.

Nunnelee told the Senate that the department also approved one Harrison County restaurant’s inspection even though birds were living in the kitchen, there was blood in a food preparation area and a dead rat near storage containers.

“Health inspectors were given specific instructions that you do not fail restaurants until you are given permission,” Nunnelee said.

Amy has long been under fire for what many consider his ineffective leadership of the health agency — particularly for failing to warn Mississippi about outbreaks of diseases such as West Nile virus.

Amy says he’ll sue the board and members individually if they remove him from his post. The threat of litigation has incensed some lawmakers.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, wanted to change the bill so that it would fire Amy immediately.

“I’m not for cutting any deals with an attorney that runs down here and gets an injunction based on what a board might do,” Robertson said. “Why are we going to pass it off and let an attorney scare the hell out of y’all? Sometimes you’ve got to have some guts.”

Several senators argued against passing a bill aimed at firing Amy, saying lawmakers should not hire and fire department heads.

“We are setting a bad precedent for us as policy makers,” said Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland.

Nunnelee, who helped draft an initial bill that would have fired Amy and the entire board immediately if it became law, also argued against terminating Amy.

Nunnelee believes that because the agency expires on June 30 anyway, Amy would be less likely to sue the state if his job “just goes away.”

State agencies typically are set to “sunset” every few years. Lawmakers usually rubber-stamp the agencies’ continued existence, but the periodic reviews give legislators a chance to review agencies where there have been complaints about performance.

This is not the first time Amy’s job could potentially be spared, at least temporarily, by a close vote. After the Senate Public Health Committee in November issued a “no confidence” vote, the Board of Health voted 7-5 on Dec. 13 to keep him on the job.

Some lawmakers say the only reason the board didn’t fire Amy then is because of the threat of litigation.

The bill is Senate Bill 2764.