Miss. open meetings law weaker than other states’

MICHAEL NEWSOM

The Sun Herald

Late last year, Bill Sharp was watching an Internet video of a Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors meeting when something odd happened.

At their Sept. 20 meeting in Meridian, supervisors went into a “closed session” to talk about a personnel matter, but the camera feeding video to the county’s website stayed on. Some personnel matters can be used as a basis for closed sessions, but while in the closed session, the board discussed raising garbage collection fees. They polled each other for support for a resolution asking the Legislature for the authority to implement the hike.

Sharp — angered over the topic coming up in closed session as it had been the subject of contention there — took the information to local media.

He believes more people should be paying attention to government, particularly when it asks for closed sessions to discuss public business. This belief prompted him to speak up at the board’s next meeting about what had happened.

“Nothing will happen unless citizens stand up and take some action,” Sharp said recently. “We have got to take back control of our government and remind them they work for us. This is one of many things done in secret.”

When he confronted them, supervisors seemed surprised the video was there, he said. Sharp said the footage soon disappeared from the county website, but copies had already been made. The tape became the smoking gun for a state ethics complaint the Meridian Star newspaper’s editor, Fredie Carmichael, filed against the board.

On Jan. 7, the Ethics Commission ruled in Carmichael’s favor, saying supervisors violated the law and “the public’s trust” by discussing what amounted to a tax increase in secret. The commission fined the board $100 — a sum Carmichael, Sharp and others believe is far too low.

Currently, Mississippi law doesn’t call for the fine to be paid out of the official’s pocket. Rather, taxpayers pick up the tab. Some want to see that changed. Mississippi is the only state with this provision.

The commission urged supervisors to pay the fine from their own pockets “to avoid penalizing the taxpayers of Lauderdale County.”

Carmichael said his paper has tangled with supervisors over open-meetings issues in the past, and the latest complaint was his way of fighting for more transparency.

“We want full compliance with the law and we want the public’s business to be done in front of them,” Carmichael said.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Hood notes Mississippi’s penalties for violating open-government rules are much more lenient than other nearby states. He said in Alabama, fines can be as high as $1,000 and officials would pay that out of their own pocket, while in Florida, violating such laws could result in up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 as well as up to $500 in penalties in civil court.

Hood also notes Mississippi is the only state where taxpayers pay the fines.

“It makes it hard to get people to comply with the law when there are no consequences,” Hood said.

The Meridian case was one of several making headlines in Mississippi in the past year. Also on Jan. 7, the commission ruled in favor of The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, after the paper complained about Hinds County supervisors discussing an insurance contract in secret at a meeting in October that was intended to handle personnel matters. The board didn’t object to the ruling.

In Natchez, Adams County supervisors were found in violation of the law over an executive session that involved funding to a local economic development authority. The Natchez closed session was also called ostensibly to discuss personnel issues, litigation and industrial development. The Ethics Commission’s preliminary ruling on Sept. 9 found that executive session broke the law. The commission said the explanation for entering a closed session wasn’t specific enough and didn’t “constitute a meaningful reason” to enter into one. Adams County supervisors didn’t object to the findings.

Kevin Cooper, publisher of the Natchez Democrat newspaper, which brought the complaint, said he doesn’t feel like the ruling changed much.

“We were happy with the outcome, but I’m not sure it fixed anything per se,” Cooper said. “It confirmed that our belief was correct they had in fact violated the law, but I’m not sure it had enough penalty or enough bite in the law to do anything more than a slap on the wrist.”

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