Executive sessions: A necessity, or tool to circumvent government transparency

Published 11:22 am Thursday, January 9, 2014

By Jeff Smith

Guest Columnist 

This is my generic assessment of executive sessions allowed by the state and used by local governments. My purpose is to identify a flawed system that will make even the most trusting person suspicious.

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Executive sessions are on almost every agenda with local government officials going behind closed doors almost every time they meet. When governments operate behind closed doors on a frequent basis, it raises the obvious question: What are they trying to hide, and why can’t they conduct business in open sessions?

Executive sessions benefit local governments that are inclined to do things in secret. The chances of suffering any consequences are slim, and the public can do little more than trust them.

If questioned about the misuse of executive sessions they would respond in this way, the law requires them not to abuse the executive sessions, just trust us.

Going into executive session, even on personnel matters, is a choice, not a requirement. That’s right. There is no provision in Mississippi state law that requires local officials to go into executive session. Choosing to discuss the public’s business behind closed doors is not public service, it is closer to self-serving. There may be very limited circum-stances when executive sessions are warranted, but every time governments choose to hide the public’s business from the public, that is a poor choice.

Non-mandatory executive sessions to discuss prospective purchases, sale or lease of lands, location relocation or expansion of business or industry are supposedly in the best interest of the taxpayers.

The rationale is it prevents the inflation of land prices. How can it be beneficial to the taxpayer to keep secret the details of how much and for what reason tax dollars are spent?

I maintain that these non-mandatory executive sessions are not in the best interest of taxpayers. It’s common knowledge that a few politically connected individuals and organizations are privileged to information unavailable to most. It’s always denied, but it’s true and those believing the denials probably believe in the Easter Bunny also.

Could public discussion be embarrassing to a politically connected individual with information available only to the members of the “good ole boy’s” club? Darn Right! Could public discussion be a detriment to someone’s reelection? Certainly!

When commercial or government land acquisition can be discussed in secret without disclosing the details to the public, it fuels speculation that such deals can be negotiated above the market value.

Surely 5 elected officials, a county administrator/city manager/mayor and numerous representatives from wealthy corporations can recognize fair market value instead of price inflation by landowners. So, what is the reason for secrecy?