April 11, 2014 3:27:18 PM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
Chris Latimer, the attorney for the Starkville Board of Aldermen, said he used caution Thursday with his advice to prevent Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker from discussing sanitation finances and potentially violating the Open Meetings Act during the first audit and budget committee meeting.
Walker joined the three-person committee's discussions after Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard, who serves as the group's chairman, seemingly invited his comments after opening up the floor to the public. Walker, whom the board previously prevented from joining the budget committee, was at the meeting in a self-noted observation role. Besides former Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, members of the press, city staff and committee members Roy A. Perkins, Lisa Wynn and Maynard, Walker was the sole member of the public present Thursday.
After a few rounds of input from both the committee and Walker, Perkins left the conference room. He later returned, pulling Chief Administrative Officer Taylor Adams from the meeting. Both would return, and Adams would go on to convey Latimer's message: Walker could only observe, not participate in financial discussions.
Both Thursday's budget meeting and a specially called board meeting - aldermen authorized a grant application 30 minutes before the committee gathered - were noticed in writing on the front of City Hall.
Walker quietly collected his papers and left the meeting shortly after Adams' announcement.
"The budget committee was formed with three people: Vice Mayor Perkins, Maynard and Wynn. We've got a committee of three, which is one fewer person than what law says is a quorum," Latimer said. "The law is clear that if there is a meeting of four aldermen and they discuss city business, that can lurk into official city meeting status.
"If (Walker) or any other alderman wants to go and listen to the committee, that's fine; however, if they participate - if they ask questions and dig in - that opens us up to a potential claim that the meeting was converted from a budget committee meeting to a full-blown city meeting," he added. "Really, that's what it ends up becoming: a special-call board meeting for the discussion of the budget."
Latimer said Walker could add an official board of aldermen agenda item to any meeting for discussions on finance topics, or the board as a whole could restructure its budget committee to incorporate the Ward 4 alderman.
In February, the board trimmed the seven-person committee's roster to three to help alleviate scheduling conflicts, Maynard said, despite Walker volunteering to serve on the group and help steer city finances.
He and Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, who previously told The Dispatch he wanted to keep the committee at seven members, voted against the restructuring.
Any recommendations by the budget and audit committee require formal action by the entire Starkville Board of Aldermen. Thursday's meeting was to be used as a preliminary discussion of sanitation finances and options, not for action to set the department's upcoming Fiscal Year 2014-2015 budget in stone.
Maynard ended the meeting by reviewing motions he planned to present Tuesday in lieu of Thursday's discussions and said he would brief fellow colleagues on those matters at the table.
Walker said he will continue to attend the meetings but wishes he could have an active part in the process, thereby fully representing his constituents in the budgetary process.
"I do realize it will all come before the board for final decisions, but being involved early in the process is the best way to ensure that you understand each department's ins and outs. That way, we're not making a decision with second- or third-hand information being discussed at the table that night," he said. "I think if enough notice is given, anyone can work out their schedule. It's beneficial for all of us to be there so we have the best chance to represent our constituents during these important discussions."
"When we came into office, everyone was a bit gun shy on the law because of what happened with the previous board," Maynard said referencing an open meetings complaint filed against the former administration. "As new board members, we were always very careful to make sure everything was done above the table. Obviously, there's no intention of keeping anybody out of these meetings."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch