September 7, 2017 2:43:54 PM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
The Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled in favor of The Commercial Dispatch in an Open Meetings Act case against the city of Columbus.
The court unanimously upheld the ruling of Chancery Court Judge Kenneth Burns. Burns ruled in May 2016 that the city in 2014 violated the Open Meetings Act when the council split to groups of two or three councilmen to discuss city business.
The pre-arranged meetings -- each attended by two or three councilmen -- took place in January and February 2014. They concerned the city's retail partnership with the Golden Triangle Development LINK and project management on the Trotter Convention Center renovation. After one of the meetings the city issued a press release indicating a decision had been made prior to conducting a formal vote.
Former Dispatch reporter Nathan Gregory filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission after being denied access to the meetings and learning of their subject matter.
Justice Robert P. Chamberlin authored the opinion, in which he said the city's actions violated the Open Meetings Act.
"The city acted with the express intent of circumventing the Act," Chamberlin wrote. "The gatherings were preplanned. The attendees invited purposefully constituted less than a quorum. The gatherings were for the express goal of discussing City business. Further, the facts support that City business was conducted and policy formulated at the gatherings. Finally, the gatherings did not fall under any of the exceptions specified in the Act. For these and other reasons contained in the record, the holding of the trial court is supported by the evidence."
Chamberlin also noted the pre-arranged, non-social nature of the meetings "illustrated the City's intent to circumvent or avoid the requirements of the Act."
Dispatch General Manager Peter Imes said the court's decision is a victory for public access to government meetings.
"The business of government is important, but it's equally important that it be conducted in public," Imes said. "This ruling reinforces the idea that citizens should be involved in the process."
The Mississippi Justice Institute represented The Dispatch in the case. Director Mike Hurst said he was very pleased with the court's decision.
"This is a huge win for the citizens of Mississippi and open and accountable government for everyone," he said. "This supreme court decision puts public officials on notice that they cannot circumvent the law and do the people's business behind closed doors."
The Dispatch has reached out to city officials for comment. See Friday's edition for further coverage.
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