The Mississippi Justice Institute has successfully fought local governments that have attempted to sidestep Mississippi's Open Meetings Act
The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the Mayor and City Council of Columbus violated the Open Meetings Act when they previously met in prearranged, non-quorum size gatherings to discuss public business, intending to circumvent the Act. This is the first time the Supreme Court has ever addressed the issue of whether meetings of public officials in less than quorum numbers violate the Open Meetings Act. The Mississippi Justice Institute represented The Commercial Dispatch in the appeal.
“This is a huge win for the citizens of Mississippi and for open and accountable government,” said Mike Hurst, Director of the Mississippi Justice Institute. “People are tired of backroom deals and secret agreements by government officials that affect their lives. The Supreme Court’s opinion puts public officials and bureaucrats on notice – you cannot circumvent the law and do the people’s business behind closed doors anymore. Today’s decision is a monumental victory for transparency in government.”
In 2014, the Columbus mayor scheduled multiple meetings with council members to discuss policy issues and determine matters involving economic development projects and renovation of city property. The meetings were not announced or open to the public. At the time, the mayor excluded a Commercial Dispatch reporter from some of these meetings. In December 2014, the Mississippi Ethics Commission held that the mayor and council violated the Open Meetings Act. The mayor and city council appealed the decision to the Lowndes County Chancery Court, which upheld the Ethics Commission’s decision. The mayor and city council then appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The original complaint against the Mayor and City Council was filed by Nathan Gregory, who at the time was a reporter for The Commercial Dispatch, a Columbus newspaper. The Commercial Dispatch eventually replaced Gregory as a party in the case. The Mississippi Justice Institute represented The Commercial Dispatch in the appeal.
The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled, “The four pairs of subquorum gatherings, along with the fact that they were prearranged, nonsocial, and on the topic of public business, illustrated the City’s intent to circumvent or avoid the requirements of the Act. The philosophy and spirit of the Act prohibit the City from intending and attempting to circumvent or avoid the requirements of the Act. Additionally, the plain language of Section 25-41-1 requires the subject gatherings to be open to the public. Thus, the City’s failure to hold open gatherings violated the Act.”
In concluding, the Supreme Court noted that, “Prearranged, nonsocial gatherings on public business that are held in subquorum groups with the intent to circumvent the Act are required to be open to the public under Section 25-41-1 of the Open Meetings Act. Thus, the trial court correctly found that the City violated the Open Meetings Act.”
Peter Imes, General Manager of The Commercial Dispatch said, “The public should have access to its government’s decision-making process, and this ruling upholds that idea. It’s a win for open government.”
Hurst concluded, “Whether raising taxes, spending taxpayer money or issuing regulations that affect people’s lives and property, people want to know what their government is doing. This decision clearly tells government officials to follow the law and do public business in the open.”
The Mississippi Justice Institute was assisted in this appeal by Clay B. Baldwin, Esq. of the Baldwin Law Firm PLLC in Madison, Miss.
The Mississippi Ethics Commission has found that the mayor and the alderman in the city of Natchez violated Mississippi’s Open Meetings Act when they entered into executive session to discuss proposals for garbage collection and recycling services.
The Mississippi Justice Institute, along with The Natchez Democrat and private citizens, filed complaints with the Ethics Commission. The ruling calls on the city and the mayor to comply with the Open Meetings Act. One of the core functions of MJI is to hold our government responsible to its citizens. Transparency is a requirement of governing by principle.
The Mississippi Justice Institute won an Open Meetings Act case 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.”