On Thursday, Lowndes County Chancery Judge Kenneth Burns ruled Columbus Mayor Robert Smith and the city council did, in fact, violate Mississippi’s Open Meeting Act.
Burns’ decision is the best possible outcome. While city attorney Jeff Turnage previously said the city will appeal this issue to the Supreme Court, we hope this ruling will mark the end of this debate and usher in a new era of open government in our city.
This episode began in 2014 when a Dispatch reporter filed a complaint to the Ethics Commission after two incidents of illegal meetings occurred.
In the first, councilmen and the mayor planned to meet with LINK officials in small groups. These meetings were pre-arranged and involved discussions of official policy, specifically the LINK’s role in recruiting retail business to the city.
Later, councilmen and the mayor met in the same way to discuss renovations to Trotter Convention Center.
These meetings were closed to the public, and a Dispatch reporter who requested access to the Trotter meetings was denied. Decisions made in these illegal meetings were later ratified by a vote in an official meeting.
The city argued in its appeal that these were not “meetings,” but “gatherings” held to share information that would later be presented to the council at a public meeting. Since the gatherings were not “meetings” as defined by the Open Meetings Act, the public could be excluded, the city argued.
Burns cut to the essence of the matter in his ruling: “Significant to the court is that the city admits that the mayor and other officials met with a quorum of the council on the days in question but divided into groups with less than a quorum of the council so the public could be excluded,” he wrote.
The city claims it “circumvented” the law but didn’t break it. Systematically circumventing a law intended to ensure government openness defies the intent of the law.
The issue (and ruling) has far-reaching ramifications. In fact, this marks the first time a judge has made a ruling on an appeal of an Ethics Commission finding regarding the Open Meetings Act. The case has captured attention throughout the state.
The city maintains it is important that the mayor and council are allowed to have informal conversations about city policy. We agree. But there is an important distinction to be drawn between exchanging thoughts and reaching decisions that are then announced at a later time. The council clearly crossed that line. The Ethics Commission reached that conclusion and now, so has the courts.
Mississippi has some of the least restrictive Open Meeting laws in the nation. Following those rules does not inhibit the city’s ability to govern. It does, however, insist that the public’s business be done in public.
That has been our argument all along.