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Columbus mayor fined for open meetings violation

The state Ethics Commission has imposed a $500 fine on Columbus Mayor Robert Smith after finding that he violated a Mississippi Open Meetings Act last year.

The Commercial Dispatch reports the penalty stems from a complaint the newspaper sent to the commission last year after Smith sent a letter to the president of the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors regarding the operation and management of a firing range.

Smith said in the letter that he had “discussed this matter with each” councilman and that he and the council proposed that the city maintain the range and bill the county for half the costs.

The Dispatch alleged that city leaders, by not discussing the matter in a public meeting, violated the state’s Open Meetings Act.

The commission, in a preliminary report Monday, agreed.

In addition to the fine, the commission recommended that Smith be ordered to “refrain from using telephone polling to discuss any matter over which the city council has supervision…except during a properly called, noticed and recorded public meeting.”

The city does not agree with the Ethics Commission’s findings.

“It flies in the face of common sense that the mayor can’t talk to councilmen other than the two hours they meet (during council meetings),” Joe Dillon, the city’s public information officer, said Monday.

Dillon said the city has filed a formal objection and the commission will hear the matter at its next meeting in Jackson on June 22.

Depending on the results of that hearing, the city will appeal the commission’s ruling to Lowndes County Chancery Court if necessary, Dillon said.

Tom Hood, the executive director of the state Ethics Commission, said Smith’s fine is the maximum that the commission can impose for a first offense.

City attorney Jeff Turnage said he was “amazed” at the commission’s findings. The fine, he said, is “political retribution” stemming from another, ongoing Ethics Commission case involving the city of Columbus.

But Hood said the commission did not include the city’s previous violation when considering the firing range case.

“This fine is simply political retribution and that’s proven by the fact that we were not allowed to present our side of the issue,” Turnage said.

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