Senator: Health officer might keep job through June as state tries to dodge litigation

Published 7:20 pm Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The threat of a lawsuit apparently can equal job security — for a little while, anyway.

When State Health Officer Dr. Brian Amy’s job appeared to be in immediate jeopardy, he threatened to sue the Board of Health. Now he may get to hold his post through June in a move that could allow the state to dodge potentially costly litigation.

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.

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Amy, 56, is the target of legislation being considered by the state Senate that would restructure the leadership of the agency. Some members of the Board of Health also have considered removing Amy from his $213,315-a-year post, but they were met Friday with a court injunction and threats of a lawsuit.

Now, Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, who helped draft the bill aimed at overhauling the Health Department, says it may be more sensible to allow Amy’s job “to just go away.”

The law authorizing the Health Department’s existence expires on June 30, the last day of the current budget year. Nunnelee says allowing Amy to remain on the job until then could keep the state out of court.

“Those people who are looking for Brian’s head on a platter may be frustrated because they want him gone yesterday,” Nunnelee said Monday at the Capitol. “But you have to ask, ’Do we want to engage in a lengthy court battle?”’

Amy did not respond to messages left Monday at his office. His lawyer, Sam Begley, said there’s no guarantee that allowing the agency to expire to get rid of Amy will protect the state from a lawsuit because it would be “an unconstitutional impairment on the right to contract.”

“Once again, we’re seeing an instance where a powerful committee chairman is trying to exercise executive power that doesn’t belong to him,” Begley said of Nunnelee. “The motivation to do this is to get rid of Dr. Amy, not to reconstitute the position of state health officer, which would be unconstitutional and might afford Dr. Amy certain rights later — like damages.”

House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said Amy should “voluntarily resign.”

“My interest from the beginning has been the functioning of the Board of Health, not Dr. Amy. I think he’s going to the most extreme measure at this point,” Holland said. “I would hate to try to operate in a place where I was unwanted. I think we should completely focus on what’s right for the Board of Health and let Amy take its course.”

A bill drafted by Nunnelee’s committee 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.

A bill now being considered in the Senate would fire the entire Board of Health, but Nunnelee said Monday the proposal would be amended to allow the board to expire on June 30 along with Amy’s position. The agency itself would continue to exist as is.

The original legislation was drafted after testimony during several public hearings revealed the Health Department failed to warn the public about disease outbreaks, including 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 bill is Senate Bill 2764.