Meridian Star files ethics complaint against supes

by Associated Press

Published: October 26,2010

Tags: Lauderdale County supervisors, Meridian Star, Mississippi Ethics Commission

MERIDIAN — The Meridian Star has filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission against the Lauderdale County supervisors’ discussion of garbage fees during a closed meeting called to personnel matters.

Supervisors have contended the conversation was an innocent one and unplanned. They say the intent wasn’t to hide the discussion from the public. Violations of Mississippi’s Open Meetings Law carry a maximum fine of $100.

The exchange was caught on camera left on when the Sept. 29 closed meeting was called and shown on a video posted on the county website. The video has since been removed.

The board of supervisors puts its meetings on the county website and the videos are archived for later viewing.

County administrator Joe McCraney has said a “casual conversation” concerning garbage fees came up when the doors were closed.

However, the newspaper and WTOK-TV posted the video on their web sites.

In the video, the newspaper and WTOK say Supervisor Ray Boswell asks the other supervisors about whether they wanted county attorney, Rick Barry, to proceed with legislation concerning the garbage tax rate.

In the exchange that follows, Barry says: “Is that what y’all want to do?”

“That’s exactly what I want to do,” says Boswell.

“I’m just not for that. That’s just my opinion,” says Supervisor Craig Hitt.

“Are you for it,” Boswell asks Supervisor Hank Florey.

“Yes,” says Florey.

“Are you for it, Wayman?” Boswell asks Supervisor Wayman Newell.

“Yes,” says Newell.

“Are you for it, Joe?” Boswell asks Supervisor Joe Norwood.

“Verdict is still out. I want to see the numbers,” Norwood says.

“Well, we’ve got three, so ask for it,” Boswell tells Barry.

The newspaper and the television station report that several minutes into the conversation, Barry warns the supervisors that they shouldn’t be discussing the garbage issue, but the conversation continued for several more minutes.

Jackson attorney Leonard Van Slyke, who handles Open Meetings and Open Records cases for media outlets, described the supervisors’ action is a violation of the law.

“This is not even arguable in my estimation as to whether it should have been a public session or not.

“What we see is an executive session of the board and they are discussing a matter that they did not vote to go into executive session to discuss and in fact could not have voted to go into executive session to discuss. It’s a pretty egregious offense,” Van Slyke tells the Meridian Star.

In an editorial on Sunday, the newspaper said it filed the complaint because supervisors gave differing accounts of what happened during the closed door meeting.

“The good news: there is video evidence this time, so taxpayers no longer have to try to decide who to believe. And the video is clear: supervisors are shown discussing garbage fees, even polling votes.

“In a day where public officials are continually asking for our trust, we look back at them and ask them to in turn give us a good reason to trust them: do our business in front of us.”

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