July 22, 2013 9:28:33 AM
JACKSON -- Every year, the Mississippi auditor's office cites a handful of circuit and chancery clerks for overpaying themselves.
Now, as lawyers for Auditor Stacey Pickering and Warren County fight in court with Warren County Circuit Clerk Shelly Ashley-Palmertree, the Republican Pickering says he wants to meet with clerks and county supervisors statewide to discuss changes to the fee system.
"In light of some of the cases we've filed recently, this is an issue that needs to be discussed," Pickering said.
In Mississippi, chancery and circuit clerks are allowed to pay themselves up to $90,000 a year out of fees collected by their offices for things like filing a lawsuit.
Pickering and Warren County supervisors say that Ashley-Palmertree and her father, who preceded her as circuit clerk, owe as much as $750,000 in above-the-cap income that should have gone into the county's coffers.
A limit of $75,600 was first set in 1993, rising to $83,160, and then to $90,000 in 2004. But clerks can make more if they perform additional duties, such as working as a county administrator or tracking inventory.
The average chancery clerk made more than $107,000 in 2011, according to auditor's office figures. Leflore County Chancery Clerk Sam Abraham made $209,251 in 2011, and Pearl River County Chancery Clerk David Earl Johnson made $209,547.
Being a circuit clerk appears less lucrative. The average circuit clerk made $74,083 in 2011, below the cap. The top-paid circuit clerk was Jones County's Wendell Gavin Jr., at $134,736.
There have been past proposals to pay clerks a salary, but they've gone nowhere. That's in part because of the opposition of the clerks, who are often political kingpins in their home counties. Chancery clerks, in particular, have reputations for being powers behind the throne, because some serve as county administrators.
It's not clear if the Warren County mess will spur change. Ashley-Palmertree is unusual in how much she owes, but the auditor's office frequently cites clerks for taking home too much money or for paying themselves unallowed expenses. In the auditor's 2012 report, nine circuit or chancery clerks were cited, some for amounts under $1,000. All of them repaid what the auditor demanded, except Ashley-Palmertree.
Pickering said the accounting can be tricky, and some overpayments may be honest mistakes.
"We've got a lot of clerks who do a good job year in and year out, who have their books in order every year," Pickering said.
Other Mississippi officials, such as justice court judges and sheriffs, used to be paid based on fees their offices collected. Pickering said he'd like to discuss salaries again, or maybe some sort of system that would tie pay to fees collected, to make sure clerks remain diligent about bringing in cash for counties.
Pickering is careful to say he's not trying to impose his ideas.
"These are duly elected constitutional officers," he said. "I don't have that kind of authority to dictate, nor should I."
Steve Gray, a lobbyist for the county supervisors' association, said he's not sure the Ashley-Palmertree case alone should be enough to spark change.
"We like to keep peace in the courthouse," Gray said. "Other than that one situation, we haven't identified any problems."
Durward Stanton, the Carroll County circuit clerk and president of the circuit clerks' state association, said he wanted to talk to other clerks before commenting.
DeSoto County Chancery Clerk Sluggo Davis, president of the chancery clerks' association, said he's willing to talk to Pickering, but says he doesn't see a widespread problem.
"I know it's not a perfect system," Davis said. "But there's no perfect system."