May 18, 2011 12:37:00 PM
"Openness in government is the public policy of this state. It is conducive to good government and heroic deeds."
So reads a Mississippi Supreme Court ruling, defending our right to know how our government bodies operate. The words should inspire our public officials: Conducting business in the light of day isn''t only the law -- it''s heroic.
Where are our heroes in Lowndes County? We know there is a shortage of heroes on the board of the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has made what appear to be some clear-cut violations of the state''s Open Meetings Act.
Last week, the board entered executive session -- agreeing to meet in secret -- to make decisions that shouldn''t have been secret: Asking its former director to return items he shouldn''t have taken when he left office, and discussing attorney fees.
The board apparently felt these were personnel and litigation issues. They are not.
The case of former CVB director James Tsismanakis is an easy one. He''s no longer an employee. The board wanted him to return some items he took, including a silver-plated harmonica. Tsismanakis later agreed.
Embarrassing? A little. A personnel issue? Hardly.
The case of the attorney fees, to the tune of $17,000, are a bit more complicated. The fees were billed by local attorney David Sanders, who also happened to be sitting on the board when he did the work. This is, on its face, unethical. Illegal? We hope not. The CVB has had trouble finding where they actually voted to hire Sanders. That the board allowed Sanders to profit from his position on the board, which is unpaid and voluntary, was clearly wrong.
Those thorny issues aside, what we find plainly and unequivocally illegal, is the board''s discussion of the payment to Sanders in a closed session. Members of public boards aren''t considered employees, so this doesn''t count as a personnel issue. The state Supreme Court has ruled on this point.
What about public officials'' other fall-back excuse to enter a secret session: Discussion of pending litigation? Sanders wasn''t planning to sue the board or threatening to, or vice versa. This matter was clearly not covered under the Open Meetings Act.
This is a new board, with new members, freshly appointed by the city and the county. The CVB serves a valuable purpose -- distributing tax dollars from the county''s 2 percent tax on food and beverage purchases.
We have stood behind this board''s right to be an independent body, free of undue political influence. But it should never forget that it is a public body, doing public business. It serves as a steward of millions of our tax dollars.
This could be an expensive lesson for the board to learn: Pending state law will allow for board members, individually, to be fined for violations of the Open Meetings Act.
So be it. The public has a right to have this board conduct its business in the open. And, board members have a legal and moral responsibility to do so.
As any lawyer can tell you: Ignorance of the law is no excuse.