September 23, 2011 2:47:00 PM
CALEDONIA -- The town of Caledonia's mayor and Board of Aldermen could face steep fines after violating the state's Open Meetings Act by failing to post notice of a Sept. 13 meeting.
The Board of Aldermen met Sept. 6 to discuss the 2011-2012 budget, agreeing verbally to recess the meeting until Sept. 13, but no written notice of the meeting was provided to the public.
According to laws set forth by the state Ethics Commission, governing bodies are required to post written notice when they plan to resume recessed meetings or hold interim or special meetings within one hour after the meeting is called or decided upon.
Mayor George Gerhart readily admitted the gaffe Thursday morning.
"We didn't because the clerk was out of town," Gerhart said, referring to Town Clerk Judy Whitcomb. "We'll do better next month."
"They'll need to," Leonard Van Slyke, attorney for the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, said Thursday afternoon. "That's a pretty clear violation, and it sounds like he acknowledged it is."
Among other actions taken during the Sept. 13 meeting, the Board of Aldermen approved the town's 2011-2012 budget and approved wage increases for Head Town Marshal Ben Kilgore and the municipal court judge Peggy Phillips.
Caledonia Town Attorney Jeff Smith did not return phone calls Thursday.
The aldermen have recessed the past few meetings instead of adjourning them, which is within the bounds of state law as long as notice is posted, but the timing and placement of the public notice is important. It must be prominently displayed, and it must be placed within an hour after the decision is made -- not just within an hour of the meeting itself, as some believe.
If a governing body willfully skirts the law in what becomes a pattern of behavior, each individual involved could face a fine of $500 for a first offense and $1,000 per person for subsequent offenses. Previously, the fine was levied against the entire governmental body, but as of July, fines can be levied against individual board members.
In small towns, especially during a time of budget cuts, Van Slyke said public records and open meetings violations are "probably more common than we would like to think. ... People tend to slack off when nobody's watching them."
Many states enacted the so-called "sunshine laws" during the post-Watergate era, as an effort to increase governmental transparency and accountability. The laws ensure that all but specifically exempt meetings and records are open to the public.
However, a 2002 state-level investigative report by Investigative Reporters and Editors, in conjunction with the Better Government Association, concluded that those laws "have proven to be almost uniformly weak and easy to undermine."
The Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information advises citizens first speak with public officials they suspect of violating the open meetings and public records laws, backing up their concerns in writing. If requests for adherence are ignored, they may take further action by filing a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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