Meridian Star

January 20, 2013

Open Meetings Act includes ‘committees’

By Terri Ferguson Smith / tsmith@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     The public's access to business conducted by public officials is somewhat stronger as a result of  a recent ruling by the Mississippi Ethics Commission.

    Public meetings regulations were the subject of a recent seminar attended by county board attorneys, according to Bo Bailey, an attorney for the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors.

    Bailey told supervisors at a work session on Thursday that a representative of the Mississippi Ethics Commission stated that the Mississippi Open Meetings Law is interpreted as including committee meetings.

    That means that even committees with only two members of the Board of Supervisors serving must give a public notice of the meeting and must record the minutes of all meetings, even though no official action can be taken during committee meetings.

    "If a committee is formed to go out and look at something and come back and make a suggestion to the board, that particular committee, based on this opinion from the Ethics Commission, they're saying that committee has to follow the Open Meetings Act," Bailey said.

    The decision was made by the Ethics Commission based on the case, William McGovern v. the City of Starkville, which ruled that committee meetings do fall under the Open Meetings Act.

    Tom Hood, executive director of the commission, said the Starkville Board of Alderman had a number of different committees that weren't providing public notices of the meetings and weren't keeping minutes.

    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.

    In the Starkville case, the Ethics Commission said that the city's municipal planning committee and the budget committee are public bodies whose meetings are subject to the Open Meetings Act.

    "While these committees were not  granted authority to act on behalf of the board, they were given 'advisory power' upon their formation by the board," the ruling said. "It is undisputed that the committees at issue in this case met and provided recommendations to the board related to formation and determination of public policy. These committees must comply with the Act."

    The ruling affects city councils, school boards, county boards of supervisors, the Mississippi Legislature and any public bodies.

    In other matters:

    • Residents who live on a private road in rural Lauderdale County may get their wish to have their road taken in by the county.

    Supervisors are expected to vote on the matter Tuesday. A number of residents of Hickory Ridge Road have petitioned the county to take in the road, which would mean the county would be responsible for the road's upkeep and maintenance.

    Hickory Ridge Road is near Zero Road in the southeast part of the county. It is a gravel road about a half a mile long that has several homes on it, according to Harris Wilder, road manager for Lauderdale County.

    "It's in pretty good shape," Wilder said. "The people have been keeping it in good condition."

    Hank Florey, board president, said the road is in District 5, which is represented by Kyle Rutledge. Florey picked Joe Norwood, District 4 supervisor and Josh Todd, District 3 supervisor, to go out and view the road and bring a recommendation back to the board.

    "If it's in a supervisor's district, he doesn't look at it, of course," Florey said "We get two disinterested supervisors to look at it. If it looks OK, we will most likely approve it."

    • The board will also consider a resolution giving permission to Demery Grubbs, consultant, to look into getting better interest rates on county bonds that were issued in 2006 and in 2008, saving about $600,000 on some bonds and saving approximately $175,000 on another.

Grubbs assured supervisors that this does not commit them to anything at this time, approval at the next meeting will just set things in motion so his firm can begin the process of seeking lower rates.

     Because of holidays on Monday, the Board of Supervisors will meet Tuesday at 5 p.m.