Last week the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors finally dropped a three-year long appeal, acknowledging that they had violated the Open Meetings Act in 2013. This was a win for the taxpayers of Lauderdale County. The open meetings violation in this case occurred when the Board of Supervisors met in two, illegal, closed-door meetings to decide whether the county would borrow money through a bond issue.
Like several other Open Meetings Act cases, though, this case revealed a problem in our state ethics laws: there are limited consequences for violating the Open Meetings Act. When a public body violates the Act, the Ethics Commission can levy fines (though it rarely does this) or, in even rarer circumstances, a court can force the public body to pay the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees. The most common outcome, though, is that the court or Ethics Commission simply rules that the public body violated the act. The decision that was made in the illegal meeting still stands. In other words, the public body receives nothing more than a slap on the wrist. It’s a “penalty” handed out all the time, including last year in the landmark Columbus open meetings act case at the Mississippi Supreme Court.
It’s time for Mississippi’s Legislature to give the Open Meetings Act more teeth. Too many public bodies are cavalier in how they treat the law. They break it because they know they can stretch out litigation (just like the Lauderdale Board of Supervisors did), let the memory of what they did fade, and still keep the decision they made in the illegal meeting.
This flies in the face of the purpose of the Act. The Act says that “the formation and determination of public policy is public business and shall be conducted at open meetings.” If decisions made in closed sessions, outside the view of the public, are allowed to stand, then public policy is, quite simply, not being made “at open meetings.”
The Legislature should add language to the Open Meetings Act that says courts or the Ethics Commission shall reverse whatever decision was made in illegal, closed-door meetings. The will put more pressure on government bodies to comply with the law. This sort of reform was proposed by journalists and some legislators last session (SB 2914), but the bill died in a Senate committee. The Legislature should pass and the Governor should sign that reform this year. It would be a powerful statement that they stand for ethical and transparent government in an election year.