by Hunter Dawkins, Publisher

On July 29, 2021, the Mississippi State Auditor Shad White released a letter to the top statewide officials giving a summary of the Special Report on Audit Exceptions for Fiscal Year 2021.  While being an aggressive State Auditor; which White has become, the audit “exceptions” is a unique statewide report of incorrect finances spent by counties or municipalities within a county.  This audit may open “a can of worms” on municipal executive power.

In this report, Long Beach Mayor George Bass was fined $5352.66 for “inappropriate” work on private property.  This action happened in March 2021, when Bass & City Public Works employees inspected the area of Alexander Road, North of Railroad Street, for persistent complaints of flooding and standing water issues.  After receiving recommendations from Public Works and two Mississippi Attorney General opinions from the City Attorney Steve Simpson (2013-00324 & 2012-00249), the Mayor moved forward with the administrative procedure to correct the drainage.

At a May 4, 2021 Long Beach Board of Aldermen meeting the discussion was brought up about the work on the private property.  Following Simpson’s response, citing the Attorney General’s opinion and historical research for correcting and mitigating drainage issues caused by the city, Aldermen Timothy McCaffrey of Ward 4 and Tricia Bennett of Ward 6 noted on the record their disagreement with the decision.

Shortly after, a letter was sent to the State Auditor’s office informing White about the operation.  Then, the State Auditor’s office sent a special agent to conduct an investigation about the matter and make a determination.

Bass & Simpson met with the Special Agent, the City Attorney used the two Attorney General opinions, which both state “a municipality in accordance with Mississippi Code Annotated Section 21-19-13, may perform drainage work on streams and water courses to correct drainage issues if the work performed ‘will promote the health, comfort, and the convenience of the inhabitants of the municipality.”

Additionally; according to Long Beach City Attorney Simpson, the opinion further declared, “Governing authorities may perform work to prevent erosion and flooding on private property adjacent to the city right-of-way with the permission of the landowner, to correct unsafe conditions, provided that such work is for the purpose of mitigating its damages.”

However, the Staff Attorney of the State Auditor responded to the city’s appeal; using the same opinion, conveying that “the agent explained the Mayor misused public property when he ordered work to be completed on private property without having the directive spread on the minutes.”

“All city or taxpayer funds have been completely reimbursed,” said Mayor Bass in his public statement last Friday. “Based upon the information at hand, and the  legal authority provided by the City Attorney, I respectfully disagree with the Auditor’s determination;  however, I respect the authority of the State Auditor’s Office and have fully complied with the  requirements of its investigation.”

On July 26, 2021, Mayor Bass set an executive order for a mask mandate in all city buildings because of the spread of the Delta variant from the global pandemic COVID-19 (coronavirus).  “The health and safety of our customers and employees is paramount,” said Bass in his social media statement.  “We ask citizens and business owners to still follow the recommended CDC and Department of Health guidelines.”

After a raucous response from social media, recently elected Ward 1 Alderman Patrick Bennett stated, “I would like to make it clear that this was not a city decision.  This was an executive order handed down solely by the Mayor.  This was not voted on by myself or the council.”

At the August 3 meeting, Mayor Bass spoke about the need to protect the city employees from the spread of the virus.  Patrick Bennett inquired to Simpson about executive authority relating to the matter, which Simpson believed the mayor had the right, under administrative procedural power.

In a July 27 letter sent to the Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch by Alderman Patrick Bennett (according to Simpson), the question was made “if the mayor of Long Beach to enact a mask mandate without the authority of the city’s aldermen, except in exercise of a mayor’s emergency powers as provided in Section 33-15-17.”

Since Mayor Bass had not declared an emergency, the query raised to the Attorney General Fitch about whether the mayor of Long Beach “operating under a Code Charter form a governance” had the executive authority to operate this mandate, “as such powers are outlined in Section 21-3-1, et seq. of the Mississippi Code of 1972.”

“In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic; in accordance with State law, declared a ‘civil’ and ‘local’ emergency.  On March 21, 2020 I also issued an Emergency Proclamation to combat the spread of the virus. On the same day, the Board of Alderman adopted a resolution by unanimous vote to support and affirm the Proclamation. Over time, I have issued four supplements to the proclamation as new information and efforts developed to protect our citizens and employees,” stated Bass in acknowledging the Attorney General letter.  “I was not informed, nor was it brought to the attention of the Board of Alderman at the August 3rd regular meeting, that Alderman Bennett had sought an AG opinion questioning my efforts to combat the recent spike in Covid cases, so I can not speak to his intentions.”

Changes in numerous state and municipal officials have determined new outcomes. Both the taxpayers of the city and state will benefit from their willingness to assure accountability in government.

No response has been delivered from the Attorney General’s Office yet.