Public defenders office in limbo, awaiting AG opinion

Published 8:16 pm Monday, December 7, 2020

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NATCHEZ — The establishment of a proposed public defenders office is in limbo while awaiting final approval from the Adams County Board of Supervisors.

Attorney Jeffery Harness, who was appointed by Sixth District Circuit Judge Lillie Blackmon Sanders to manage the proposed office, said during a Monday meeting a “massive case load” with between 50 to 100 clients are waiting on disposition of their court cases while urging the board to take action.

“Prolonging this matter could have great consequences,” Harness said. “We need to get copy machines, telephones and an office space that right now we don’t have.”

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The estimated budget for a public defender’s office is approximately $320,000 per year, which would be used to assign county-paid attorneys to indigent defendants as well as for office space and supplies.

Board president Ricky Gray said he would not take action until he has a written opinion from the Attorney General that the creation of such an office would not violate nepotism laws.

Harness previously appointed attorneys Zachary Jex, Tim Blalock, Lydia Blackmon and Aisha Sanders to work for the county public defenders once the office is established.

None of the attorneys are selected by Lillie Blackmon Sanders. However, Aisha Sanders is Blackmon Sander’s daughter and Lydia Blackmon is Blackmon Sander’s sister.

Adams County Attorney Scott Slover said he received emails from the Attorney General’s office and the Mississippi Ethics Commission, which said that the appointment of Lydia Blackmon and Aisha Sanders to serve as public defenders is lawful.

“There is not an official AG’s opinion yet, but they did reach out to me just to correspond,” Slover said, adding the board could move forward with establishing the office if they so choose.

“We are on board with it but we want to make sure that it is legal and we want to have that in black and white,” Gray said. “Until we have that in black and white, I’m not going to move on it.”

In other matters during Monday’s meeting of the Adams County Board of Supervisors Meeting, the board discussed short-term solutions for safety concerns about Morgantown Road.

Supervisors have long discussed widening and repaving Morgantown Road but have been unsuccessful in securing funds for the project. Board President Ricky Gray and Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson said they recently met with Mississippi Department of Transportation officials in Jackson to talk about restriping, placing additional signage, reflectors and other warning signs on Morgantown Road to make it safer as a temporary solution until funds to rebuild the road can be put in place.

Also during Monday’s meeting, the board approved a bid for resurfacing State Park Road from G. Rayborn Contractors of Natchez for $1,460,455.28, which is being funded through state aid road construction funds.
Officials said the State Aid engineer’s estimate for the cost was a little less than $2.1 million, which would leave approximately $600,000 left over for other state aid roads like Morgantown.