One member of the Starkville Board of Aldermen believes the board violated Mississippi”s Open Meetings Law Tuesday night during an executive session after its recess meeting in City Hall.
Mayor Parker Wiseman, however, believes the executive session and subsequent votes behind closed doors were legal, and city attorney Chris Latimer said he would like to investigate the matter further before giving his legal opinion.
Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins, a practicing attorney, believes the board”s 5-2 vote to create a master sergeant position for the Starkville Police Department and give the officer who fills that role a 5 percent pay increase was illegal. The position will be filled by a promotion from within the Starkville Police Department, Chief David Lindley said Thursday.
Perkins also feels the board acted illegally when it voted 4-3 to give $4,000 pay raises to two level III staff support technicians working for the SPD. The two technicians” salaries were raised to approximately $34,500 and $32,000, respectively, city clerk Markeeta Outlaw said.
According to Mississippi”s open meetings law, aldermen are allowed to go into executive session to discuss personnel matters relating only to job performance, character, professional competence, or physical and mental health of a person holding a specific position.
Perkins believes the votes Tuesday night should be classified as employee retention, which doesn”t fit the criteria for an executive session, he said.
“Retention of personnel does not deal with job performance, character, professional competence or physical and mental health,” Perkins said. “It”s undisputed that the law was violated. It”s not the merits of the issue, or the lack thereof, that”s in question. In order to go into executive session, you have to have a reason set forth in the state statute. The statute does not allow the board to go into executive session to talk about retaining an employee.”
Wiseman, who also is an attorney, said he, Latimer said the Board of Aldermen went into executive session under the assumption that employee performance was going to play into the discussion on the proposed master sergeant position since it would be a performance-based promotion from within to achieve that rank. He believed the performance of the two staff support technicians also would be included in the discussion on proposed pay raises.
“Given what I thought the discussion could well be about and given the city attorney”s legal analysis on what is permissible for an executive session on employee performance, it was my feeling, and the city attorney concurred, that it was an appropriate matter for executive session,” Wiseman said. “There”s no way on the front end to know how that discussion is going to proceed, but I felt there was a substantial likelihood that it could proceed on the grounds of performance of individuals, which is why it went into executive session.”
As it turned out, the discussion did not focus on the performance of employees, Wiseman said. Much of Lindley”s presentation to the board during executive session focused on the police department”s budget, Latimer said.
“In hindsight, it was probably a discussion that could have been had in open session,” Wiseman said. “However, I still think the decision was proper to go into executive session because there was a substantial likelihood that it could have turned into a discussion on performance.”
Latimer echoed Wiseman”s sentiments Thursday night, but said he is still investigating whether or not the vote in executive session was legal because “the performance aspect of that discussion never came up and the vote took place.”
“I would like to run that research string all the way out before I say one way or the other,” Latimer said when asked if the vote was legal. “I for sure thought it was legal going in, but I”ll have to research it more fully to have a further opinion.”
Perkins said he deliberated throughout the executive session whether or not to question the legality of the closed-door vote, but opted to ask Latimer about it after the session was over.
“I knew it wasn”t proper, but it”s not my job to do that,” Perkins said when asked why he didn”t speak up about his legal concerns. “I”m not the attorney for the board.”
Only Perkins and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn Sr. voted against the creation of the master sergeant position, Outlaw said. Both also voted against the pay increase for the two staff support technicians, along with Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, Outlaw said.
Perkins said he is concerned about the legality of the vote because he wants the Board of Aldermen to vote on issues involving taxpayer funds in a public forum, not behind closed doors.
“The Board of Aldermen improperly discussed taxpayers” dollars and the public”s business in secret,” Perkins said. “We cannot do that. We, the mayor and Board of Aldermen, took an oath that we would uphold the law and follow the law at all times. We are not given preferential treatment. We are not exempt from upholding the law just because we are the governing body.”
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