The Mississippi Justice Institute (MJI) won its second Open Meetings Act case in two years in Lauderdale County Chancery court on Friday. The case was filed on behalf of Tommy Williams, a Lauderdale County resident, who challenged the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors for violating open meetings laws. The Lauderdale Supervisors dropped their appeal on Friday, meaning the ruling that they held illegal, closed-door meetings to make decisions about borrowing money through bonds is final.
“This is an important win that should send a message around Mississippi: don’t violate the ethics and open government laws, or responsible citizens and the Mississippi Justice Institute will stand up for their rights and challenge you,” said MJI Director Shadrack White.
Meridian attorney Stephen Wilson and White represented Williams in the case, Thomas E. Williams v. Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors. Williams blew the whistle when Lauderdale Supervisors purposefully met in small groups to avoid creating a quorum. By not creating a quorum at any one meeting, Supervisors believed they could avoid the requirements in the Open Meetings Act that said those meetings had to be open to the public.
“Mississippians deserve transparent government. Citizens have the right to see, in flesh and blood, how their leaders make decisions,” said White. “This case reaffirms that principle.”
“MJI was successful in this case thanks to Tommy’s courage and thanks to a strong precedent set in a previous MJI case on the Open Meetings Act,” added White. Last year, MJI won an Open Meetings Act case involving the City of Columbus at the Mississippi Supreme Court. The case set a critical precedent that politicians cannot hold small meetings for the purpose of sidestepping open meetings laws.
“Meridian attorney Stephen Wilson is a brilliant lawyer and also deserves a great deal of credit for driving this case to completion,” said White.
The Open Meetings Act states that all official public meetings of a government body where a quorum is present should be open to the public, with only a few exceptions. Now courts have bolstered the law with two rulings that say politicians may not pre-arrange smaller meetings with the intent to avoid the requirements of the Open Meetings Act.
The Lauderdale Chancery Court’s ruling upholds an initial ruling by the Mississippi Ethics Commission in this case. “The Ethics Commission should be commended as well here,” said White. “They did excellent work uncovering the facts of this case and upholding transparent government.”
In its two year history, MJI has built a track record of success, particularly in transparency and ethics laws cases. MJI has also sued Jackson over its onerous regulations on new taxi businesses, has successfully defended the rights of Mississippi charter school parents in a landmark constitutional case, and has filed a complaint challenging Natchez’s violation of transparency laws.