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BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

Lauderdale County supervisors spend nearly two-thirds of meetings in executive session

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Roughly speaking, the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors spends two minutes in executive session for every one minute it spends in an open meeting. 

The Meridian Star tracked 22 meetings, or 3,112 minutes, from January to June. The board spent 1,989 of the those minutes, or 64 percent, in executive session and 1,123 minutes in a public meeting.

Supervisors meet at 9 a.m. on the first and third Monday of the month, with a work session the Thursday before. Nine of the 22 meetings were work sessions. 

Under the Mississippi Open Meetings Act, public bodies can go into executive session for 14 reasons, such as the transaction of business, personnel matters or litigation. 

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: Lauderdale County supervisors spend nearly two-thirds of meetings in executive session

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

Roughly speaking, the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors spends two minutes in executive session for every one minute it spends in an open meeting.

Lee Thaggard, the board's attorney, lists the reasons at the end of legal agenda and applies them as necessary.

Thaggard said the board doesn't track their time spent in executive sessions but said that, considering the time the board spends discussing economic development, (or the transaction of business, discussions and negotiations regarding the potential location of a business or industry in Lauderdale County, as written on the agenda) he wasn't surprised.

"Right now, given how proactive the board is on those things that are in those categories, no," Thaggard said. "What I would say is, it may seem skewed right now, but look back in 12 months and see what's happened in Lauderdale County with economic development."

On average, supervisors list between two and three reasons for going into an executive session, including economic development, potential purchase or lease of real property, potential or current litigation and personnel matters.

Of the 22 meetings, the board discussed economic development 16 times in executive session and discussed the potential purchase or lease of real property 12 times. 

Thaggard said that, especially with economic development, interested companies didn't want their dealings made public.

“If you’re trying to convince a particular company to locate to your area, many of them that are considering building a plant here or relocating from another location... if you identify that (publicly), you're cut off the list," Thaggard said. "So, from the standpoint of industry, it's highly competitive. We're competing against our neighbors in Alabama."

For companies looking to relocate, rumors of a move might impact their current factories or plants in another location, Thaggard said.

"You wish you could talk about that in the open, but the fact of the matter is, if you do, we'll never land those industries," Thaggard said. "There are some things, for the board to be effective in the betterment of Lauderdale County, that cannot be (open)."

Negotiations to locate a Raytheon jet construction facility in Meridian, which ended in early 2017 after Raytheon pulled out of the deal with the U.S. Air Force, took time and effort to secure.

"The amount of work that went into negotiations for them to commit to come here was tremendous. Had you announced that, we would have been scratched from the list," Thaggard said. "So that's similar if there are, hypothetically, other projects that are being considered right now."

For something like the purchase of a property, such as the Village Fair Mall, advertising the price of negotiations may attract other buyers.

"When we talk about negotiations for real property, those are delicate things, delicate negotiations. And, obviously, if we got someone else that's interested in that property that might be just a little bit more interested than you, then that'll impact your purchase price," Thaggard said. "Of course, after the fact, there's the actual contract and the purchase price is out there. So, at some point in time, you put out there as much as you can."

David Miller, the board attorney for Forrest County, said that the Forrest County Borad of Supervisors usually had at least one executive session item at their bimonthly meetings, usually personnel or litigation matters. Miller also said he didn't track executive sessions but said they ranged from 15 minutes to a couple of hours.

The City of Meridian infrequently uses executive sessions, though a January meeting concerning salaries over paybands, a personnel matter, included a nearly three-hour executive session that involved nine individual employee evaluations.

Personnel or legal matters

For the board's other two reasons for executive session, litigation or personnel matters, Thaggard said it came down to protecting the county's legal interests and respecting an employee's right to privacy.

In the 22 meetings, the board discussed personnel matters 14 times and current or potential litigation seven times.

Thaggard said that because of the board's concentration on economic development, such as preparing an industrial site off of Sweet Gum Bottom Road, the board has had reason to go into executive session. 

 "More so than it's been in years past, we've got economic development to talk about," Thaggard said. "When the improved park is up and operational, it'll be a sight to see. There’s so many reasons why Meridian and Lauderdale County should be a place for industries to relocate."

The location of Lauderdale County and Meridian, just off of an interstate, well connected to railroads and geographically situated between some major Southeastern cities made the area ideal for an industry, Thaggard said.

"We’ve just got to continue to be proactive in recruiting those industries," Thaggard said. 

The Mississippi Ethics Commission fined supervisors in early 2011 when a previous board discussed garbage fees in executive session. The livestream of the meeting captured the incident and posted it to the county's website.

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: Lauderdale County supervisors spend nearly two-thirds of meetings in executive session

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

The Meridian Star tracked 22 meetings of the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors, or 3,112 minutes, from January to June. The board spent 1,989 of the those minutes, or 64 percent, in executive session and 1,123 minutes in a public meeting.

The commission found that supervisors discussed issues unrelated to their stated reason for executive session behind closed doors while waiting for a county employee to resolve a personnel matter. Board attorney Rick Barry, a partner with Thaggard, warned supervisors in the recording but supervisors apparently failed to heed his advice, the final order said.

"It appears from the video recording that the elected representatives of the people of Lauderdale County... deliberated what is essentially a tax increase without even allowing the people or the press to observe," the order, fining each supervisor for $100, said. "But for their oversight in allowing the video camera to continue recording, their actions would probably never have seen the light of public scrutiny."

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