Clerk pay system needs an overhaul

Published 8:36 am Sunday, May 27, 2007

At least some of the fervor over Adams County’s circuit clerk woes seems to be settling a bit. The sides still appear polarized and largely resolute in their beliefs.

Some people think the man walks on water; others think he’s a criminal.

My feelings are well known and, although we’ve written this numerous times before, we encourage letters to the editor to share your feelings on the matter, regardless of where you fall on the love-him, hate-him spectrum.

Email newsletter signup

That said, today I’m not going to mention our circuit clerk’s name and not going to retell his tales again.

But the complicated issue is still on my mind this morning. Mostly at this point, I’m looking ahead to prevention of such messes in the future. To effectively consider solutions, understanding what happened is key.

So how did all of this happen, anyway?

And, more important, how can we fix it so it doesn’t happen in the future?

The easiest answer to the last question is simple: vote out the offender. The power of the vote is obviously the best and most effective way to make a change in government.

Hopefully that voter-driven change happens in this case.

Such a statement on Election Day is likely the most effective way to send a message that voters want elected officials with integrity and honesty watching over the public’s money.

But short of the power of the vote, how did all of this mess happen anyway?

While that’s a somewhat complicated question, one simple truth clarifies the biggest “hole” in our current system of managing the circuit court clerk’s office.

First, the circuit clerk position has been one that for years has been among the prime elected positions that seem to tempt and foster corruption.

Judging from headlines around the state in recent years, if someone in county government is going to be charged with criminally mishandling money, chances are that person will be a circuit court clerk.

Apparently, seeing massive amounts of cash roll into and out of your bank account is just too much of a temptation. That cash is just too tempting of a cookie to pass up.

And that’s the trouble with the current system we use to compensate circuit clerks. In Mississippi circuit clerks are managed under a “fee paid” system.

Essentially, each office is setup as a separate, independent business.

All of the fees collected go into what is essentially the clerk’s personal checking account.

Expenses for the office come out of the account; the remainder is the clerk’s paycheck.

Although the clerks are restricted in what they do with all that money coming and going, no one is really watching until the annual state audits.

This loose system is just asking for trouble.

The state wisely realized this in the 1990s, passing a cap on what the clerks could earn each year — before that in largely populated counties the clerks could earn princely sums — even without doing anything illegal.

The caps limit circuit clerks’ annual earnings to $90,000, which in Adams County is triple the median household income.

Many readers who have written — some publicly, many seeking to keep their comments private — have expressed frustration, disappointment and disgust with the justice system after the outcome of our circuit clerk’s case.

But perhaps, in addition to using their vote to rid the public of the disappointing elected officials, we need to lobby our state representatives and senators to push legislation to clean up the “fee paid” system we use.

Tightening up the system might prevent more messes like the one our community has experienced.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or