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Court: Governments can’t evade open meetings in small groups

The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a ruling that a government can’t set up meetings of less than a majority of public officials to evade the state’s Open Meetings Act.

The court ruled 9-0 that the city of Columbus was wrong to set up pairs of meetings with the mayor and three city council members apiece in 2014, avoiding the city council’s quorum of four members. Those meetings were to discuss an agreement between the city and an economic development agency and maintenance of public buildings.

A reporter for The Commercial Dispatch newspaper found out about the meetings but was excluded. The reporter then filed an ethics complaint and the state Ethics Commission ruled that such “piecemeal” quorums were illegal. The city appealed to chancery court, and then again to the Supreme Court when Chancery Judge Kenneth Burns also ruled against the city.

The city, supported by the Mississippi Municipal League, had argued that no gathering where a quorum wasn’t present could be a “meeting” under terms of the law, because the council could take no final action without a quorum present. But the court disagreed.

“The city acted with the express intent of circumventing the act,” Associate Justice Robert Chamberlin wrote for the court. “The gatherings were preplanned. The attendees invited purposely constituted less than a quorum. The gatherings were for the express goal of discussing city business. Further, the facts support that city business was conducted and policy formulated at the gatherings.”

Dispatch General Manager Peter Imes said the decision was a “win for open government.”

“This ruling reinforces the idea that citizens should be involved in the process,” Imes told his newspaper.

Mike Hurst of the Mississippi Justice Institute, which represented the Dispatch, said the case was an important precedent. The institute is representing a Lauderdale County manin a similar case against that county’s supervisors.

“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,” Hurst said in a statement.

A city spokesman and city lawyer did not respond to emails seeking comment.

The decision does not eliminate all meetings among government officials before issues are discussed in open meetings. For example, the Ethics Commission ruled earlier this year that some Lowndes County supervisors had not violated the law through discussions before a vote. The commission found some of those meetings were “chance or impromptu,” and a meeting involving two supervisors and consultants was not aimed at evading the law.

“The decision sends a strong message that secret, back-room deals with public boards are illegal,” Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Hood wrote in an email. “This decision affirms the commission’s position and makes it law. The case is a major milestone for open government in Mississippi.”

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