September 8, 2017 10:25:02 AM
The Mississippi Supreme Court's unanimous decision in favor of The Dispatch and against the city of Columbus Thursday goes far beyond circulation areas or city limits.
It is a decision that impacts every city or county government and the millions of citizens those bodies represent.
The court unanimously upheld the ruling of Chancery Court Judge Kenneth Burns who ruled in May 2016 that the city violated the Open Meetings Act when the council split to groups of two or three councilmen to discuss city business in 2014.
Burns' ruling came after the city appealed a ruling by the Mississippi Ethics Commission that the city had violated state law.
The city's primary argument was that the rules governing open meeting were ambiguous and open to broad interpretation.
Now, after that argument has been rejected at all three levels where the city's case was heard, any claim that the state laws governing open meetings can be interpreted that elected officials can conduct business in private is forever rejected.
Justice Robert P. Chamberlin in his opinion made this point with emphatic clarity:
"The city acted with the express intent of circumventing the Act. 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."
The judge's words echoed what The Dispatch has argued all along. City business must be done in public and there are no circumstances, aside from those exceptions clearly outlined in the Open Meeting Act, that allow government bodies to pick and choose which subjects they will address in an open, transparent manner.
Every citizen has a right to participate in their government. The city's efforts to deny citizens that right was been thoroughly and emphatically rejected by the state's highest court.
It is a settled issue.
We hope the city will not view the court's ruling as a defeat to be resented, but an opportunity to learn, to become more transparent and, therefore, more accountable.
Ultimately, Thursday's Supreme Court ruling is a win for our form of government.
Whether elected officials realize it or not, open government benefits them, too, because its strengthens the bonds between the elected officials and the people they represent. Secrecy, on the other hand, almost always produces the exact opposite effect.
Aside from a few bruised egos, Thursday's ruling was a victory for all Mississippians.
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