September 8, 2017 10:43:59 AM
COLUMBUS -- 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. The Ethics Commission found the city's meetings violated the Open Meetings Act, and Burns' ruling upheld that decision.
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."
City Attorney Jeff Turnage said the Supreme Court's ruling made the Open Meetings Act more confusing for municipalities.
Turnage pointed to a complaint former WTVA News Director Steve Rogers filed in 2016 against the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors as another point of confusion. Rogers' complaint alleged supervisors divided themselves into three groups of two -- less than a quorum each but constituting a quorum when counted together -- to have separate discussions about whether to hire a consultant. The Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint, noting some aspects of the meetings were "troubling," but didn't violate the Open Meetings Act.
"With this ruling, the Supreme Court has made new law and the Ethics Commission has made it more confusing," Turnage said. "The Open Meeting Act clearly said if no action could be taken there was not a meeting. No action could have been taken and the meeting was only informative.
"We are not sure now based on the Steve Rogers v Lowndes County Supervisors if we can even convey any information on any subject between meetings," he added. "Until it is clear, we will do our best to comply with whatever the new decision requires -- understanding it is now more unclear than ever."
Mayor Robert Smith did not respond to calls for comment. The Mississippi Municipal League, when contacted, declined to comment on the case.
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