Our View: Sidebar conversations in meetings must stop

July 10, 2019 10:17:10 AM

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On Monday, during open session of a Lowndes County School Board meeting, board president Robert Barksdale made a phone call from the board table. 

 

He pushed his chair back from the table and called Superintendent Lynn Wright, who was inexplicably not present, to obtain a recommendation on whether the district should raise the millage rate. At first, Barksdale talked in low tones, with neither the public nor other board members present privy to what they were discussing. To the other board members' credit, they compelled Barksdale to use the speaker phone so everyone could hear the recommendation firsthand. 

 

What was said before board members intervened, however, the public will forever be deprived of knowing. But while all of this was taking place, the man the board hired to consult it on legal matters -- Attorney Jeff Smith -- let the chairman very probably violate the Mississippi Public Meetings Act. 

 

According to that law, if a board member wants to discuss something behind closed doors, he or she must first move for a "closed determination hearing," wherein the board would decide behind closed doors whether the issue in question qualifies as a matter that can be discussed in executive session. (Personnel matters and student discipline are among the most common subjects discussed in public school executive sessions. A superintendent's thoughts on increasing taxes decidedly do not qualify.) 

 

From there, the public is brought back in and informed whether the board will enter executive session.  

 

Sidebar conversations about policy during open session, therefore, are improper, at minimum. 

 

Incidents like Monday's seem to be a pattern with boards for which Smith serves as attorney. 

 

About a year ago, a Dispatch reporter covering a Columbus Light and Water board meeting observed a similar incident. 

 

Following a disagreement between CLW board chairman Michael Tate and another board member on an issue, Tate -- while discussion continued in open session -- stood up from his seat, walked over to the other board member and squatted down beside him to be level with his ear. The two then engaged in a sidebar conversation, in which Tate was whispering, while the other board member bandied between nodding and shaking his head. Eventually, Tate returned to his seat and rejoined the open discussion. 

 

Outside of those two board members, no one could hear what was said in the sidebar. One is to assume they were discussing a CLW matter. 

 

Smith, for his part, saw the whole thing. And despite spending several minutes of each of those meetings doling out legal and procedural advice to the board members, he said nothing, at the time, about circumventing public meeting rules. 

 

In the CLW case, our reporter confronted Smith afterward and asked why Tate was allowed to have that private conversation in a public meeting. Smith acknowledged it was improper and said it wouldn't happen again. At subsequent CLW meetings The Dispatch has attended, it hasn't. 

 

So why did something so similar happen with Barksdale on Monday? The same public meetings rules apply, even if it is a different board. An attorney and a state representative like Smith, of all people, should know that. 

 

These boards are obligated to conduct their public meetings in public, especially when tax increases are on the line.