Mississippi legislators are considering whether to redefine what a “public meeting” is and Columbus is at the center of the debate.
State Sen. Lydia Chassaniol of Winona introduced Senate Bills 2352 and 2489 at the Capitol this week. Those bills, as written, state that a “public meeting” only occurs when a quorum of a governing body is present. If passed, the Open Meetings Act would not apply to gatherings of less than a quorum, meaning the public could be barred from attending.
Chassaniol, in an interview with The Dispatch on Thursday, said she sponsored the bills at Columbus City Attorney Jeff Turnage’s behest.
“He asked me to (sponsor) those bills, and I did,” Chassaniol said. “A lot of people think that automatically means they’ll become law, but it doesn’t…but maybe this will get the conversation going about what constitutes a public meeting, and we can have an open discussion on matters that need to be discussed.”
A quorum is a minimum number of members of an assembly that must be present at any of its meetings to make the proceedings of that meeting valid.
The state Ethics Commission last year ruled that the Columbus mayor and city council broke the state’s Open Meetings Act when Mayor Robert Smith met with groups of two or three councilmen at different times to discuss issues related to the city’s economic development services and Trotter Center construction. These types of gatherings are known as “rolling quorums.”
The Dispatch attempted to attend at least one of the meetings but was denied attendance. The Dispatch subsequently filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission.
Finding a sponsor
Turnage said he approached Chassaniol about sponsoring the bills after the Ethics Commission’s ruling against the city of Columbus. Turnage owns property in Chassaniol’s district.
Before approaching Chassaniol, however, Turnage said he went to local Reps. Gary Chism and Jeff Smith.
Chism, who represents District 37, said he declined to sponsor the bills because he thought the city acted improperly when it gathered in “rolling quorums” last year.
“It looks to me like they (the Columbus mayor and council) were skirting Open Meetings law,” Chism said. “We don’t need that. I think we need to have transparency.”
Chism said he would not support either of Chassaniol’s bills if they reached the state House.
Smith, who represents House District 39, said he sees the bills’ merits and would probably support them. Whatever its decision, he said the legislature, not the court system, should be the one making it.
“Is it our intent to allow this type of ex parte communication between board members or does all this need to go on in the open?” Smith asked. “That needs to be cleared up one way or the other.”
Simply a clarification
Turnage, on Thursday, said he believes the bills will not alter the Open Meetings Act.
“They will simply clarify what was already intended by the legislature,” he said. “I’m much appreciative of (Chassaniol) for doing this. She has taken a beating from (state media) for doing it, and I think wrongfully so.”
Chassaniol said her intention is to clarify state law that governs elected bodies throughout the state so that they can handle business more efficiently.
“There are supervisors and councilmen all over the state who are scared to death they may do something wrong, when they just want to serve the public,” she said.
Turnage, who defended the city before the Ethics Commission last year, admits the meetings in question took place in the manner described in the complaint but maintains they did not violate the Open Meetings Act. He said the meetings were meant to keep councilmen abreast of issues that could come before them in open session, and they did not determine public policy behind closed doors. Further, he feels the city achieved the best results for its citizens by holding discussions in private.
Ethics Commission disagrees
Tom Hood, the executive director of the Ethics Commission, disagrees.
“The facts were pretty clear,” Hood said. “You had one group meet, and then another group meet on the same issue. And those two groups together made up more than a quorum of the council.”
Turnage said the Ethics Commission’s ruling created a quandary for state governments whose elected officials may need to discuss public business, even one-on-one, to better make informed decisions in the public square. Such a ruling, he said, even made him nervous to email all six councilmen about the legalities of agenda items.
“This would prevent the mayor from calling a council member and saying, ‘Hey, I really need you to support policy item F,'” Turnage said. “I just think if we have every discussion on every agenda item in a public meeting, everything will be slowed down, or elected officials will have to make quick decisions without enough input.”
The Mississippi Municipal League agrees with Turnage. Though MML executive director Shari Veazey did not return calls and messages for comment on Thursday, the organization did support the city in a memorandum to the Ethics Commission. It said cities statewide would be “overwhelmingly impacted” by what the Ethics Commission ultimately ruled because it questioned the authority of public bodies to “effectively and efficiently produce any meaningful and productive process of government.”
Bills would change, not clarify law
Hood contends, however, that neither the Ethics Commission, attorney general’s office or any court has deemed the “rolling quorum” practice legal. Therefore, Hood said the bills Chassaniol has introduced would effectively change the law, not “clarify” it.
“If the law allowed them to do what they want, they wouldn’t be wanting to change it,” he said.
Both Hood and Mississippi Press Association attorney Leonard Van Slyke agreed that efficiency shouldn’t be the goal for local governments. Van Slyke said the Open Meetings Act already clearly defines the line between efficiency and transparency and if the legislature adopts Chassaniol’s bills, it would effectively shut the public out of the decision-making process.
“It’s more efficient never to have an open meeting,” Van Slyke said. “It’s more efficient to have a dictator…I’m very concerned about the bills being presented because they would create an exemption (to the Open Meetings Act) that you could drive a truck through. It would essentially negate the Open Meetings Act if you allow such an exemption to pass.”
In Columbus’ case, Van Slyke said he believed the mayor and council willfully circumvented the public.
“I’m not sure why you would do what they did if you weren’t trying to thwart public discussion,” he said. “The timeframe doesn’t matter, but it makes it more obvious when you (meet with everyone separately on the same issue) in the same day.”
The city has appealed the Ethics Commission’s ruling to Lowndes County Chancery Court.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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