Once described as “the ‘dark continent’ of the state’s political system,” Mississippi’s counties have experienced considerable change since the 1980s. In the wake of Operation Pretense and the Mississippi legislature’s subsequent passage of the County Government Reorganization Act of 1988, officials have made considerable progress in modernizing and professionalizing the county as a unit of local government.
Counties have existed as organizational units in what is now Mississippi since 1799, eighteen years before statehood. All four of Mississippi’s constitutions (1817, 1832, 1869, and 1890) have mentioned counties, placed the county’s governing authority in the judicial branch of government, and established functions for the governing authority that were executive or legislative in nature. Although constitutional bodies, counties are creatures of the state and possess the powers and functions granted by the Mississippi Constitution and the statutes adopted by the state legislature.
Since 1918 Mississippi has been divided into eighty-two counties, each of which is subdivided into five districts (traditionally called beats), which are to be as equal as possible in population. County government is headquartered at municipalities designated as county seats. Seventy-two counties have one county seat, while the remainder have two county seats because the county is divided into two court districts. Each county seat maintains a county courthouse.
Prior to 1988, counties operated under a beat system of organization and road and bridge management, with each of the county’s five supervisors independently managing roads and bridges in his or her beat and allocating money as he or she saw fit subject to the limitations of state law and the approval of the entire board of supervisors. County revenues for roads and bridges were usually divided equally among the beats, without regard to road mileage or conditions.
Between 1984 and 1987, the FBI, with the cooperation of state auditor Ray Mabus, conducted Operation Pretense, a sting operation involving purchasing activities in twenty-six counties. Seventy-one public officials, including fifty-five county supervisors, were ultimately convicted on felony charges. The Mississippi legislature responded to this corruption by passing the County Government Reorganization Act of 1988, which required all counties to move to a unit system of centralized road administration unless exempted by a majority of the qualified electors of the county. Under a unit system, the administration of roads (planning, funding, construction, purchase of equipment and supplies, employment, and so forth) is conducted on the basis of the needs of the county as a whole, without regard to district boundaries. A unit system requires the appointment of a county administrator and a road manager. At present, forty-four counties operate under the unit system, with the remainder using beat or district systems. In addition, the legislation required all counties to adopt a centralized system for purchasing, receiving, and inventory control and general personnel administration.
Each county’s governing authority consists of a five-member board of supervisors, each of whom is elected from a district. No professional qualifications exist for the position of supervisor, and there is no limit on the number of terms a supervisor may serve. State statutes provide a process to fill vacancies, and the constitution and statutes list nine reasons for a supervisor’s removal from office. The annual salary of a supervisor is fixed by statute based on the total assessed valuation of property in the county for the preceding tax year. The board of supervisors elects one member as president and one member as vice president. Regular meetings are held every month, and the board is attended by the county sheriff or deputy sheriff and the chancery clerk or deputy chancery clerk to execute and process the board’s orders.
The board of supervisors has powers in the areas of general administration (meetings, budget, appropriation of funds, elections, and managing county property), law enforcement and courts (funding the employees, facilities, and programs of the sheriff, the court system, and the county jail), health and public welfare (zoning, planning, construction, subdivision regulation, solid waste collection and disposal, fire protection, emergency management, homeland security, public welfare, and physical and mental health), taxation, recreation and soil and water conservation, public works (roads, bridges, drainage, and public buildings), industrial development, and intergovernmental cooperation. Thus, the board of supervisors must guide and establish policy for the complex multimillion-dollar enterprise of county government.
County government also requires other elected and appointed officials. Elected officials serve four-year terms concurrent with those of the members of the board of supervisors and include the chancery clerk, the circuit clerk, the sheriff, the coroner, the constables, the justice court judges, and the tax assessor and/or collector. The major appointed county officials include the board attorney, the county administrator, the county engineer, and the road manager.
The chancery clerk serves as the clerk of the chancery court, the clerk of the board of supervisors, the recorder and preserver of all land records, and the bookkeeper. The circuit clerk serves as the clerk of the circuit court; has certain administrative duties in the election process, including voter registration; and issues marriage licenses. The sheriff is the county’s chief law enforcement officer. Justice court judges have jurisdiction over limited civil and criminal actions and receive assistance from the constables in executing criminal judgments. Depending on qualifications, the county coroner serves as either the county medical examiner or the county medical examiner investigator and is responsible for investigating deaths.
The attorney for the board of supervisors performs a wide range of legal duties. The county administrator is charged by statute with performing twenty specific administrative duties. The county engineer has a full range of typical engineering responsibilities, and the road manager oversees the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges.
Administration of justice at the county level is handled by the justice courts (found in all eighty-two counties), the county courts (nineteen counties), and two general-jurisdiction trial courts—the circuit courts (twenty-two districts covering the state) and the chancery courts (twenty districts covering the state). The justice courts have jurisdiction over small-claims civil cases, misdemeanor criminal cases, and traffic offenses occurring outside a municipality. County courts have jurisdiction over eminent domain proceedings and juvenile matters, share jurisdiction with the circuit and chancery courts in some civil matters and noncapital felony cases transferred from circuit court, and have concurrent jurisdiction with justice courts, both civil and criminal. Chancery courts have responsibility for land records as well as jurisdiction over juvenile matters in counties that lack county courts, equity disputes, domestic matters, guardianships, sanity hearings, wills, and challenges to the constitutionality of state laws. Circuit courts hear major felony cases, major civil lawsuits, and appeals from lower courts and certain administrative boards and commissions.
- James R. Crockett, Operation Pretense: The FBI’s Sting on County Corruption in Mississippi (2003)
- Robert B. Highsaw and Charles N. Fortenberry, Government and Administration of Mississippi (1954)
- Gokhan R. Karahan, Laura Razzolini, and William F. Shughart, in Economics of Governance (August 2006)
- Dale Krane and Stephen D. Shaffer, Mississippi Government and Politics: Modernizers versus Traditionalists (1992)
- Mississippi State University, Center for Governmental Training and Technology, County Government in Mississippi (2004)