Meridian Star

December 12, 2009

Did supes violate open meetings law?

Officials’ stories don’t match

By Jennifer Jacob Brown

When it comes to what went on in the most recent closed meeting of the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors, recollections vary quite a bit.

The board went into closed session at their regular meeting on Monday, and Board Attorney Rick Barry said the board was using the closed session to discuss litigation, one of the exemptions under state law whereby public officials can exclude the public.

But one supervisor said they discussed at least two other topics, which is a violation of the state's Open Meetings law. District 5 Supervisor Ray Boswell said the board discussed a request from Meridian Mayor Cheri Barry for the county to pay half of the city's annual $30,000 payment to lobbyist Beth Clay, who is one of the state's top lobbyists. The City of Meridian is one of Clay's clients. She works with the city to lobby legislators on laws that could impact the Meridian area.

Boswell also said board members discussed the credit card usage of District 4 Supervisor Joe Norwood, who Boswell said was not present during either conversation.

Both of these topics involve the usage of county funds, which by law must be discussed by the board during open meetings. Three other supervisors, however, said nothing but litigation was discussed.

"We really hadn't gotten into the meat of the session, and that's when it was brought up," Boswell said of the discussion of the payment for lobbying work. "(Norwood) was coming on his way back when (Board President Hank Florey) asked everybody (about Clay's salary) and I said not no, but H-E-L-L no, we won't give a dime to them. And nobody would say anything."

Boswell said after the discussion on Clay's payment, County Administrator Mike Sumrall brought up Norwood's credit card usage.

"I said, you don't need to be talking about this," Boswell said. "You're an ex-state auditor (employee), and you should know better than to discuss that in executive session."

Tom Hood, director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, said Mississippi's Open Meetings Act requires that any legislative body going into a closed session announce all the topics they're going to discuss. There are 12 legitimate reasons to go into closed session, according to the act.

"You can discuss anything that falls into those 12 categories," Hood said, "...But if you tell the public you're going into executive session to discuss pending litigation, that's the only thing you can discuss."

Three other supervisors who were present at Monday's meeting denied having the discussions during closed session.

"No, it was not discussed in executive session," Florey said of the city's request. "We were discussing litigation."

Florey said the request to help pay for Clay's state lobbying services was brought up in conversation with individual supervisors in their offices on the 11th floor of the Raymond P. Davis county annex building.

District 3 Supervisor Craig Hitt corroborated Florey's version of events, saying, "I think the discussion was brought up one-on-one with individual supervisors."

Wayman Newell, supervisor for district 2, was present at the closed meeting, but said he was unaware of the city's request.

Sumrall said he is not allowed to discuss what goes on during closed session. State law, however, does not prohibit any official from discussing what is said in closed meetings.

When going into a closed session, public bodies are required to publicly state which exempted issue they will discuss behind closed doors.

"If you're going into executive session, then you announce that reason. That's all you can talk about," said Hood. In addition, Hood said he recommends being as specific as possible when announcing the reasons for a closed session.

"Say you're going into executive session to discuss a current lawsuit," he said. "Well, that lawsuit is public record. So they should say they're going into executive session to discuss the lawsuit of Smith vs. Jones."

Hood said that if a board or council is going into closed meetings to discuss several topics, they must announce all of them.

"If you need to talk about four different things and they're all on that list of 12, you have to announce all four things before you go into executive session," he said.

Boswell said the board regularly discusses off-topic matters while in executive session.

"When you go into executive session," he said, "it's more or less just people sitting around talking."

State law is clear that closed sessions are not intended to be used for anything besides the announced topic. The Supreme Court has said that when public bodies meet behind closed doors they should understand that they are taking certain liberties away from the public and should exclude the public only when necessary.

Hood said the ethics commission can investigate allegations of open meetings law violations if someone files a complaint with them. If the commission finds that the allegations are true, the penalty is $100. That fine is paid by the public body, not the individual.

There is, however, a bill being drafted that would increase the fine and make it specific to the official who violated it. That bill is expected to be introduced in the Mississippi Legislature next year.

Though they did not agree on whether it was discussed in a closed session, the board did agree on one thing about paying for Clay's services: it's not likely the county will contribute to it.

Said Hitt, "I know I heard three of us say we were not interested in doing that." Hitt, however, said those discussions happened in conversations outside of the closed meeting. He also said they were with individual supervisors and not with a quorum present.

What did you say?

According to Mississippi's open meetings law, a public body —including city councils, county boards, boards of aldermen, and school boards — can only go into a closed session to discuss specific types of personnel matters; security personnel, plans, or devices; investigations concerning allegations of misconduct of violations of law; extraordinary emergencies posing immediate or irrevocable harm to persons or property; the prospective purchase, sale, or leasing of lands; the preparations of admission tests for recognized professions; the location, relocation or expansion of a business or industry; a line item in a budget which might affect termination of an employee or employees, although all other budget items must be considered in open meetings; and discussions between a school board and individual students within the board's jurisdiction or the parents or teachers of such students regarding problems of the students, parents or teachers.

Anything that does not fall into the above categories must be discussed in open meeting.