Meridian Star

Columns

March 3, 2013

Open Meetings Act a necessity

MERIDIAN —    What was Meridian City Council member Jesse E. Palmer Sr. thinking last week when on two separate occasions he railed against Mississippi's Open Meetings Act?

    At a Feb. 19 meeting of the Meridian City Council Palmer said he would like to know why former Police Chief James Reed abruptly tendered his resignation without explanation other than to cite "personal reasons."

    Palmer said after the meeting that Reed said he "doesn't want his personal business put out there for all the public to know so we will try to respect that."

    Council President George Thomas said at the meeting that Palmer and council members Mary Perry and Bobby Smith had expressed a desire to form a committee to determine why Reed left.

    Under the Open Meetings Act, however, committee meetings would be open to the public.

    "I don't give a dime about the law," Palmer said. "I think it is the worse thing to happen, ever."

    Two days later at a council work session where discussion included the need to set up a special meeting to vote on a Hazard Mitigation Plan, Palmer said, "If there were no law in place against closed, non-public attended meetings the council members could vote right now and get it over with."

    Let's get this straight. Palmer would prefer council members be allowed to meet in private with no members of the public or press present?

    Perhaps he needs to be reminded that the business of taxpayers should never be conducted behind close doors and that there is no good argument against open government.

    Are open meetings inconvenient at times for public officials? Of course they are, but the need for public scrutiny of government action has been proven over and over again.

    An article published in the June 14, 2011 edition of The Meridian Star detailed a council work session where Meridian City Council members discussed contributions to charities and other local organizations, such as Meridian Main Street.

    Council members offered different opinions on whether charitable contributions should be increased or decreased. Palmer was attributed in the article as saying he would like to see $500,000 set aside for disbursement.

    According to the article, Palmer looked at the media afterwards and said, "This is all off the record, now." The article states that Palmer then told the council, "That Open Meetings law is about the worst thing that ever happened to us."

    After the meeting, council member Mary Perry then sought out The Meridian Star reporter covering the meeting and said, "All that we talked about, that's off the record," according to the article.

    "When told that nothing discussed in a public meeting is off the record, she said, 'Yes it is,'" the article states.

    We find it troubling that elected officials would wish to keep from the public discussions about how to spend taxpayer money — particularly when a figure of up to $500,000 is thrown around.

    It is because of that very desire by some public officials to withhold information from those they represent that states have adopted open meetings laws.

    In fact, the Mississippi Ethics Commission recently strengthened the Open Meetings Act by ruling that meetings of committees that report back to elected bodies are also covered under the law.

    The ruling cites a 1989 Mississippi Supreme Court summary of the law:

    "Every member of every public board and commission in this state should always bear in mind that the spirit of the Act is that a citizen spectator, including any representative of the press, has just as much right to attend the meeting and see and hear everything that is going on as has any member of the board or commission," the high court said.

    We have to look no further than the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors to find justification for open meetings laws.

    In January 2011 the Mississippi Ethics Commission fined the board for "violating the public trust."

    Members of the Mississippi Ethics Commission unanimously voted to impose their maximum fine at the time of $100 to the supervisors for discussing garbage fees behind closed doors.

    The fined stemmed from a Sept. 20, 2010 Board of Supervisors meeting when members went into a closed session, citing personnel matters as the reason for closing the meeting to the public.

    A video camera taping the open portion of the meeting was inadvertently left on during the closed meeting and the video was streamed live and archived on the county's website for public viewing.

    On the video, board members are shown freely discussing a possible increase in garbage fees and taking a poll to find out whether they would approve a motion to raise garbage fees — a discussion not related to personnel matters that should have taken place in an open meeting.

    Supervisors were recorded in the closed meeting asking Board Attorney Rick Barry to draft a resolution asking the Legislature to give the board the option to raise those fees.

    The resolution was later presented and approved by the board at an open meeting. Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Hood said the board "intentionally and knowingly violated the law."

    Since that time, the Ethics Commission has since raised the maximum penalty for violations of the Open Meetings Act to $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for a second or subsequent offense, plus "all reasonable expenses incurred by the person or person in bringing the complaint."

    All that said, there are many good people serving in public office and those mentioned here may have the best intentions.

    But the fact is that not all elected officials can be trusted to do what is right at all times and the state of Mississippi adopted the Open Records Act as a means to protect the public.

    If some public officials dislike the law and find it inconvenient, that's just too bad.

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