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August 15, 2014 11:40:15 AM
The Mississippi Ethics Commission has issued a preliminary report stating that meetings of the Columbus mayor and city council that took place this year violated three sections of the state's Open Meetings Act.
The commission emailed its report to The Dispatch and city council attorney Jeff Turnage on Thursday. The report states that open meetings laws were violated when city leaders held pre-arranged meetings with two or three councilmen.
"The 'meetings' at issue in this case involve matters that routinely come before governing authority of a municipality -- economic development and maintenance of public buildings," the report states.
The Dispatch filed a complaint with the commission after becoming aware of separate meetings on three days concerning the city's retail partnership with the Golden Triangle Development LINK, and on one day concerning project management for the Trotter Convention Center renovation.
The state Ethics Commission, in its preliminary report, recommended that the mayor and city council refrain from further violations and comply with the three sections it claims were likely violated.
"These meetings included deliberations by the council members concerning matters specifically under the jurisdiction of the council," the report states. "These meetings circumvented the (Open Meetings) Act."
The council has until August 22 to file an objection to the report. If it does so, a hearing would be scheduled for October.
Turnage, when contacted by The Dispatch on Thursday evening, said he would make sure Smith and the council are aware of the report and seek their guidance on whether to appeal.
"I think there's no way a grouping of people that can't take official action could be a meeting, and that's the way the legislature defined the meeting under the code," Turnage said. "It might be what everybody wishes the law is, but this would be one that might go to the Supreme Court if the mayor and council agree (to object). That would mean the mayor couldn't call people one at a time and say, 'I really would appreciate your support on this,' without inviting the public. No legislative body works in that fashion. They talk about things between themselves all the time."
In February, the non-quorum method was used to discuss how renovation of the Trotter Convention Center, a public building, would be managed. A request by The Dispatch to attend one of the meetings was denied. After the meetings, city officials issued a press release announcing the city would be its own contractor for the project.
At the next regular council meeting, the council took a formal vote in favor of authorizing the city as the contractor. Little discussion took place before the vote.
Leonard Van Slyke, attorney and media access expert with the Brunini Law Firm in Jackson, told The Dispatch in February that no case law regarding these types of meetings exists in Mississippi, but in other states they're referred to as walking quorums.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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