The president of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information is crying foul after he says Columbus officials endorsed an action without public discussion or a public vote.
Mayor Robert Smith sent a letter to the president of the Lowndes County board of supervisors in late April proposing the city operate the firing range and bill the county for half the costs. Smith wrote that he and each Columbus councilman were in agreement on the matter.
The mayor’s letter — composed on city letterhead and dated April 28 — states that he had “discussed the matter with each member of the Columbus City Council” and refers to an “unanimous opinion” of councilmen.
The Dispatch called all six Columbus councilmen Monday. Three were reached. They confirmed that they offered support for sending the letter via a “phone poll” from the mayor.
Will Bardwell, a Jackson attorney who serves as president of the Center for Freedom of Information, said the mayor’s and council’s actions appear to have violated the open meetings act.
“This ‘phone polling’ that has gone on has been completely rejected as a means of getting around the open meetings act,” Bardwell said.
“This was tantamount to city action,” he added. “The communication was done with the intent of effectuating a council decision. So that’s a meeting.”
Columbus City Attorney Jeff Turnage, however, told The Dispatch the city did nothing wrong.
One-on-one discussions between the mayor and individual councilmen are legal, he said, and he does not believe the language of the letter constitutes official council action.
“It’s not an action of the council to have an opinion and share it,” Turnage said.
While Bardwell said he understands Turnage’s argument — the mayor and councilmen sharing opinions in individual conversations is not an open meetings violation, he said — he maintains there was more at play in this situation.
“This wasn’t two people having a casual conversation over a cup of coffee,” Bardwell said. “These were conversations about city policy with the intent of reaching a decision.”
Supervisors rejected the city’s proposal Monday, voting to operate the firing range without city funding or assistance. A ribbon-cutting for the range near Yorkville Road, a joint venture between the county and city, is set for Friday.
Ward 3 councilman Charlie Box said the letter was meant to give the city and county an opportunity to agree to terms before the range opened Friday.
The council met Tuesday. The firing range was not discussed. Lowndes County supervisors meet again May 15.
Box said it is not unusual for the mayor to poll councilmen on actions taken before a public vote. He said he had long operated with the understanding the practice is legal.
“We’re polled on stuff all the time,” Box said. “Then we ratify it later.”
Ward 6 councilman Bill Gavin specifically called it a “voice vote over the phone.”
Bardwell said Gavin’s characterization further implies the collection of conversations the mayor held with council members constituted a meeting that should have been held in public.
“There doesn’t seem, to me, to be a straight-faced explanation of how this isn’t a violation,” he said.
Turnage rebuffed Box’s claim that city officials commonly execute action based on phone polling, then ratify it later in a public setting.
“That’s not within my understanding,” Turnage said. “I don’t remember such a thing happening in 10 years of representing the council.”
The Dispatch on Monday contacted Smith about the letter. He declined to comment.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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