March 1, 2014 10:26:06 PM
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith has called non-quorum meetings with councilmen on four occasions in the past month to discuss matters involving public and taxpayer interest. Splitting meetings into non-quorum groups keeps the city from being required to post notice of a special call meeting and legally permits city leaders to meet without inviting the general public or media.
Leonard Van Slyke, attorney and media access expert with the Brunini Law Firm in Jackson, said no case law regarding these types of meetings exists in Mississippi, but in other states they're referred to as walking quorums.
All six city councilmen agreed that Smith's intentions, and theirs, have been in the best interest of Columbus in scheduling the meetings. They say the non-quorum meeting allows for frank discussions, even though they also acknowledge the importance of transparency in conducting city business. They say that no votes or actions have been taken during these meetings.
On Jan. 23, councilmen met in split groups with Golden Triangle Development LINK staff to discuss the future of the two parties' retail development partnership. It was agreed then that the two would no longer work together in that capacity. On Feb. 12, Smith again met with split groups to gather input on what to do address the city's retail development interests. Twelve days later, elected officials again met with LINK staff and opted to renew redevelopment ties.
Finally, Smith, city staff and councilmen met in two non-quorum meetings to discuss renovation of the Trotter Convention Center. More than two weeks after bids from general contractors were more than double the construction budget for the project, the mayor and council agreed during those meetings to formally approve making the city the project's contractor with project managing firm J5/Broaddus serving as the agent and hiring sub-contractors individually during their regular meeting March 4.
Press releases summarizing the outcomes of discussions were sent to local media on three of those four occasions. The Dispatch was denied a request to attend Thursday's non-quorum sessions on Thursday.
In the case of the meetings with LINK staff, councilman Joseph Mickens said those discussions were best conducted without the public present. He said he didn't see a reason why the public and media was excluded from the Trotter work sessions.
"We want to be transparent and we don't want to be secretive like we're doing something behind the (public's back), because that's not the impression we're trying to send out," Mickens said. "The three-on-three meetings with the LINK, I definitely don't think we needed the media there. We were trying to mend some bridges and sometimes things are said that can be taken out of context. With the Trotter, I don't see where we had to exclude the media from that."
Until a deal is done
Councilman Kabir Karriem referenced occasions in the past where the LINK has met with split groups of councilmen to discuss prospective retail and said those gatherings should remain as they are to keep word from getting out until a deal is done. In general, however, Karriem said he feels non-quorum sessions should be the exception and not the rule.
"I think (the LINK gives) a full, detailed report after those meetings when a decision has been made so the public will be well-informed," Karriem said. "I don't think (non-quorum meetings are) about trying to hide anything from the public. It's coming together to find out what is in the best interest of the mayor and council as well as the city of Columbus.
" I don't think the mayor and city council should be singled out for having a meeting like that. I think we have a responsibility to come back and explain why we have met or why we feel that was the best way whatever the decision is or whatever the situation is. I don't think it should be the norm. I think it should only be done under those circumstances where you have sensitive issues. Transparency should be the order of the day."
Sees value in split meetings
Charlie Box said as a citizen, he wishes all city business could be done in an open forum. As a councilman, he said he sees value in split meetings.
"My wish is that all of our meetings could be open to everyone," Box said. "On the other hand, the only way sometimes that you can have real frank discussion is when you're in those three-on-three meetings. It's hard to have an all-out discussion at a city council meeting. There's some good to be said about both of them. I know the public would probably rather see us meet in open session every time we have any meeting to discuss city business. They should never be done to hide something from the public. These were done that way so we could have frank discussion and clear the air on issues that needed to be talked about."
Councilman Marty Turner said he supported the media's objective of holding public officials accountable but didn't think discussions on the Trotter were significant enough to merit presence from the general public or media.
"The media is supposed to keep us honest and not have an opinion on anything. They're just supposed to report the news so the public will know city officials are doing their business," Turner said. "Most of the time I like for everybody to know everything at the same time so we can make a decision at that time. It depends on the situation. I think (holding private meetings on the Trotter Center) was done right because that's not newsworthy that we're sitting around talking about the Trotter Center. The Trotter Center is already established. All we're trying to do is remodel it and bring it up to date. We just talked about it. We didn't vote on anything because we couldn't."
Councilman Gene Taylor reiterated that Thursday's meetings were for the purpose of discussing the best way to go forward with renovating the Trotter and informal, private sessions worked to achieve that goal.
"We talked about the past bids and really, that was it," Taylor said. "We have meetings in emergency situations when something comes up and we have dates and deadlines we have to meet on certain things. Sometimes it just has to happen that way, but it's all in the best interest of the city."
"They have a right to know"
Gavin said he's in favor of split meetings on the condition that the public is informed afterward of what took place.
"I am in favor of bringing everything to the public's attention. I think they have a right to know. It's their tax money, we are their servants and they have a right to know," Gavin said. "There are some things that need to be discussed privately and when everyone has expressed their views, you can involve the public. I think (non-quorum) meetings have a place. I would not want to get rid of them, but I think once those things are done we have to inform the public on what's going on.
"I do see the value of three on three but I also believe very deeply that the government has the right to be honest with people," Gavin added. "I think we've done that. I don't think we're keeping secrets from anybody at all. There's nothing in this town that's kept a secret. People are going to find out sooner or later."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.