Unanimous Mississippi Supreme Court Decides Columbus Mayor and Council Violated Open Meetings Act

Mississippi Justice Institute calls first-of-its-kind decision a monumental victory
for open and transparent government for all Mississippians

(JACKSON, MISS) – Today, 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.”

[The Ruling]

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 is also representing a local Meridian man against the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors who have committed the same violations of the Open Meetings Act as found illegal in the present case by the Supreme Court. See http://www.msjustice.org/case/lauderdale-open-meetings-act/

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 Justice Institute is the legal arm of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. It represents Mississippians whose state or federal Constitutional rights have been threatened by government actions. Mississippi Justice Institute is supported by voluntary, tax-deductible contributions. It receives no funds from government agencies for its operations. To learn more about MJI, visit www.msjustice.org.