Hed: Monroe coroner challenges Ethics Commission ruling to keep deputy's post

By Cynthia M. Jeffries

Daily Journal

ABERDEEN - The Monroe County coroner has filed a lawsuit challenging a state Ethics Commission opinion that says he cannot simultaneously serve as both a deputy sheriff and a coroner.

Coroner/Medical Examiner Alan Gurley filed the lawsuit last month in Monroe County Circuit Court against the Monroe County Board of Supervisors, the state attorney general's office and the Mississippi Ethics Commission. The suit was filed after Gurley was informed he was violating a recent Ethics Commission ruling by holding down a job at the Monroe County Sheriff's Department while working as the county's elected coroner.

"When I took this job (with the sheriff's department), we had a clear ruling saying that a coroner could be a deputy. Somewhere along the line, they changed their minds," Gurley said in a phone interview from the sheriff's department. "I think it's unconstitutional. I keep my duties separate."

The Ethics Commission issued a ruling Feb. 8, 1996, stating that "a coroner, like the constable É would be prohibited from serving as a paid deputy sheriff in the county he serves as a coroner." The commission made its ruling on constables Dec. 10, 1995.

On May 22, Monroe County Chancery Clerk Ronnie Boozer issued a memo informing county employees about the ruling. County Attorney John Creekmore interpreted the ruling to include all county employees who hold two jobs with different county offices. Ten people, including Gurley, were effected.

Gurley, who is in his second term as coroner, started working with the sheriff's department as a dispatcher and relief deputy last December.

Let the courts decide

The matter will most likely end up before the Mississippi Supreme Court. Until it is settled, an injunction will allow Gurley and others in his position to keep both jobs.

Gurley, who is secretary for the Mississippi Coroner's Association, said the matter could effect nearly 30 coroners and deputy coroners across the state. There are 197 coroners and deputy coroners in Mississippi's 82 counties.

The ruling affects two of Monroe County's three coroners. Deputy coroner/medical examiner Norman Smith is also a deputy with the Sheriff's Department.

Chickasaw County Coroner Andy Harmon, who was elected in 1995, is also a sheriff's deputy. Harmon said he sought an attorney general's opinion and was given the OK to run for the coroner's job his father, John Harmon, had held for 20 years.

Attorney general's spokesman Trey Bobinger said when similar questions were raised his office had ruled there was no problem because Mississippi's separation of power law was not being violated.

But since then, the attorney general's office has adopted the Ethics Commission's decision.

"We don't normally rule on ethics issues," Bobinger said. "(The recent ruling) was the first time the ethics issue was addressed."

Having a coroner serve as a deputy is nothing new in the state or Monroe County. Former Monroe County coroner Pete Shook served for eight years while working at the sheriff's department as a deputy.

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