Four Oktibbeha County supervisors violated the Open Meetings Act in February when they met with engineers in a series of sub-quorum meetings, according to a preliminary ruling by the Mississippi Ethics Commission.
Board president Bricklee Miller, District 3 Supervisor Marvel Howard, District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer and District 5 Supervisor Joe WIlliams “established a quorum” by holding two separate meetings Feb. 3 with the same engineers representing Mississippi Engineering Group, the ruling reads. They discussed improvements to the county lake dam, a matter over which the supervisors have authority, without providing public access, notice of the meeting or recording minutes.
The ruling does not recommend any penalties against the supervisors. However it recommends the board, “refrain from further violations.”
Engineers asked the board to meet in separate sub-quorum meetings to discuss the technical details of a study they had conducted on the dam prior to the report being made public. Miller informed a Dispatch reporter of the meetings, after which managing editor Zack Plair contacted board attorney Rob Roberson, telling him he believed the meetings would constitute a “rolling quorum” and violate the Open Meetings Act.
Upon Roberson’s invitation, The Dispatch attended one of the sub-quorum meetings. No members of the general public were present for either. No votes were taken at the meetings.
District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery was unavailable to attend the meetings with engineers.
MSEG presented its final report on the dam study to the public during a board of supervisors meeting March 7, in which the board also approved a contract for MSEG to design dam improvements.
The Dispatch filed an open meetings complaint against the board with the Mississippi Ethics Commission on Feb. 4.
In the board’s response to the complaint, Roberson noted the sub-quorum sessions were meant to educate board members on “highly technical” aspects of the engineers’ report and allow them to ask questions. He said there was no discussion between board members about the project and they made no policy or funding decisions during those meetings. Each meeting involved fewer than three members to avoid “the appearance of an open meeting violation.”
However, the ethics commission ruled both the county administrator and board attorney pre-arranged the meetings in which the board engaged in the “deliberative stages of the decision-making process that lead to the formation and determination of public policy.”
“… It is clear that the supervisors did not attend the meetings to simply listen, but engaged with the engineers present, such that the engineers could tailor their final report to address their concerns,” the ruling reads.
Dispatch Publisher Peter Imes said he is pleased with the commission’s ruling.
“Informational sessions for our elected leaders should be informational to the public too,” he said. “The Dispatch remains committed to helping ensure public meetings are accessible to all.”
The county has five days from receiving a copy of the preliminary ruling to file an objection, which would trigger a hearing process.
Roberson told The Dispatch this morning he will recommend the board not appeal.
“In this matter, the county still believes that education is a reasonable exception and that was clearly the intent,” he said. “We will abide by the ethics decision and in the future prepare accordingly no matter the expense or discomfort to those involved. The (ethics) commission typically finds violations when there is any question.”
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