Court rules against city in open meetings law appeal

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By Steve Wilson  /  May 27, 2016 /

For the first time since the Mississippi Open Meetings law was enacted in 1976, two governmental bodies are appealing decisions handed down by the Mississippi Ethics Commission in cases involving a Columbus newspaper and a citizen of Lauderdale County.

TRANSPARENCY: Former assistant U.S. attorney Mike Hurst is representing the Commercial Dispatch, a Columbus-based newspaper, in a case regarding the state’s open meetings law.

TRANSPARENCY: Former assistant U.S. attorney Mike Hurst is representing the Commercial Dispatch, a Columbus-based newspaper, in a case regarding the state’s open meetings law.

One appeal was defeated on Wednesday, as Lowndes County chancery court judge Kenneth Burns upheld the Ethics Commission’s December 2014 ruling in the case against the city of Columbus.

The appeal of the commission’s ruling by the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors is still pending in Lauderdale County chancery court.

The Ethics Commission ruled that Columbus violated the state’s open meetings law by conducting several meetings of two or three council members at a time with the mayor to discuss economic development projects and other policy issues. Burns’ ruling agreed with the commission’s findings.

“The ruling is a victory for transparency and open government in Mississippi,” said the newspaper’s attorney, Mike Hurst of the non-profit Mississippi Justice Institute. “This ruling will help prevent government leaders from circumventing the law, shutting people out, deliberating and determining matters in back rooms and keeping citizens in the dark as they conduct the people’s business.”

These meetings skirted the law’s requirements by not having a quorum of council members present, which would have required a public notice in advance and minutes to be kept. Nathan Gregory, then a reporter for the (Columbus) Commercial Dispatch, was not allowed to attend these meetings, which were held in the mayor’s conference room.

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The state’s open meetings law requires that elected officials and government agencies do the people’s business in full public view. The Ethics Commission conducts hearings on complaints and can compel the agency or elected body to follow the law, but the maximum penalties it can impose are $500 on each individual member or $1,000 for a second offense.

“The law really doesn’t have any teeth when it comes to enforcement,” Hurst said. “If you don’t have any teeth in the law, you’re going to get elected officials choosing not to follow it.”

Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors

In the other case on appeal, Lauderdale County resident Thomas Williams was in opposition to a $14 million bond issue being considered by the county Board of Supervisors. What drew his ire and pushed him to file a complaint with the Ethics Commission was how the board discussed the matter twice in a consultant’s office, outside of a public meeting and without notice.

While Williams won the first round in January when the Ethics Commission ruled in his favor, the county board has appealed the verdict in Lauderdale County Chancery Court. Hurst said the Mississippi Justice Institute is also interested in taking on Williams’ case.

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The 78-year-old Lauderdale County resident said he has spent about $6,500 in legal fees fighting the board of supervisors, but he also said it’s money well spent. He said he plans to file a motion shortly in reply to the appeal.

He said the newly elected Board of Supervisors have done a much better job with transparency since he filed the complaint.

“Transparency is a huge thing to me,” Williams said. “The new board has really improved and I’m thrilled for it.”

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