Court to public officials who meet in private: ‘Don’t’, Part 2

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, October 4, 2017

By Layne Bruce

Earlier this year, members of the Diamondhead City Council were found to be circumventing the act in a fashion similar to Columbus: Council members were meeting in pairs with State Auditor Stacey Pickering, again in an effort to avoid having a quorum present.

For his part, the auditor wrote a letter to the commission objecting to its ruling, offering a rather novel defense that his office is not subject to the Open Meetings Act.

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We can split hairs over whether state agencies are subject to the law, but there should be no doubt the Diamondhead City Council is.

While these are three examples of questionable judgment on the part of public officials, it bears noting that way more follow the rules than don’t.

“The great majority of public officials want to follow the Open Meetings and Public Records laws, and do so,” said Leonard Van Slyke, an attorney skilled in media and transparency issues who represents the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information.

“When the law is not followed, it is a combination of those officials who truly misunderstand the law and those who, unfortunately, willfully disobey it whether the reason is convenience or an effort to hide something from the voters.”

All of these cases are basically a fool’s errand and, no doubt, a further waste of taxpayer time and money.

Of the Columbus case, Ethics Commissioner Tom Hood told the Associated Press it “sends a strong message that secret, back-room deals with public boards are illegal.”

Still, though the Ethics Commission and now the Supreme Court are on record saying such meetings designed to circumvent quorums are a no-no, the law itself lacks teeth in terms of enforcement. About all that can be done is to tell violators: “Don’t do it again.”

“The Ethics Commission is to be commended for confronting the issue,” Van Slyke said. “The icing on the cake would now be for the legislature to strengthen the enforcement penalties.”

What kind of penalties?

“I think it is now time for the legislature to codify a rule that would invalidate any action taken in violation of the Open Meetings Law,” he said.

Now that would be a guard dog with a pretty sharp bite to it.

Meanwhile the Supreme Court decision in Columbus sets a strong precedent. It should be the first commandment in any public official’s playbook: “Thou shalt not conduct the public’s business in private.”