An agreement by the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi to release minutes of its Oct. 23 meeting has led the Mississippi Business Journal to withdraw a state Ethics Commission complaint it made against PERS.
PERS executive director Pat Robertson initially ordered her staff to refuse the release of the minutes until they could be approved in final form by the PERS board of trustees at its Dec. 18 meeting. Neither Robertson nor her staff would cite statutory authority for refusing public inspection of the records.
Robertson relented after receiving legal advice that she had no authority to withhold the unofficial minutes, said Greg Gregory, PERS deputy administrator in the Office of Administrative Services.
Robertson, in a letter to the weekly business newspaper, said she has been “made aware that draft copies of a public entity’s minutes are subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act.”
Gregory said from now on, PERS will honor any request for minutes from members of the public.
Robertson insisted the denial was not an attempt to circumvent Mississippi law but based on a desire to ensure information in the minutes was vetted for accuracy.
Had the minutes not been provided, the Mississippi Business Journal intended to seek a hearing before the Ethics Commission on claims the PERS’ records refusal violated both the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws.
The Ethics Commission could have ordered Robertson to release the information had it found a meeting law violation. A finding of a records violation, however, would have limited the commission to requesting PERS follow the law and release the minutes.
According to Mississippi Ethics Commission director Tom Hood, public officials across the state mistakenly think meeting minutes of public bodies can be shielded from public examination until given official approval.
The public officials are failing to realize the “purpose of the minutes is to memorialize” what has been discussed and decided at a public meeting, Hood said in an interview late last year.
Mississippi Freedom of Information statutes specify that requested minutes must be provided in unofficial form within 30 days of the date of the meeting. Before the 30 days, the notes from which the minutes will be written must be provided.
PERS acknowledged the minutes had been distributed to trust board members. The Mississippi Business Journal argued in its complaint that any distribution of the minutes means the rest of the public should have access to them as well.
The minutes sought by the newspaper contained details of the PERS Trust Board’s vote to enact a fixed rate as the employer’s share — in this case the state, cities, counties and school districts — of the public employees retirement fund.