Reluctant officials get civics lesson from Supreme Court
By Charlie Mitchell
During the hurricanes early this month, the Mississippi Supreme Court quietly struck a blow to ratify people-power in city halls and courthouses around the state.
The court affirmed that public boards, councils and commissions violate the law when they split into small groups for closed huddles to keep their thoughts and plans under wraps.
The case was Mayor and City Council of Columbus vs. The Commercial Dispatch. It started almost four years when a Dispatch reporter, Nate Gregory, learned that the town’s mayor organized a series of duplicate morning and afternoon sessions with city council members to go over economic development and other topics. Three of the six council members were invited to the morning sessions and three to the afternoon sessions.
Gregory asked to sit in and permission was denied. It became apparent the purpose of dual sessions was to avoid having a quorum in the room, thus defeating the tacit definition of “meeting” in the Mississippi Open Meetings Act.
Be clear, Columbus officials did not invent this ruse. “Mini-meetings” were rapidly becoming standard operating procedure for city and county boards across the state. To has out a matter of public policy privately, members merely deployed the artifice: Meet, but don’t have a “meeting” in the legal sense of the word by having a majority present.
Gregory filed for a clarification with the Mississippi Ethics Commission which, by statute, can issue rulings on public access matters. The commission advised Columbus officials they were in violation. Their findings, however, carry something less than the full force of law, and Columbus officials appealed to chancery court in their home county, Lowndes. The chancellor also told the city officials they were in the wrong, but the city officials persisted to the state’s highest court.
The justices made short shrift of arguments by the city’s lawyers. The relevant Mississippi statute, they found, is “plain and unambiguous.” It reads, in part, “the formation and determination of public policy is public business and shall be conducted at open meetings.”
The justices did recognize the public can be troublesome, that “not requiring meetings to be open could allow for more frank conversation of be preferable to the council,” but then quoted an earlier decision in which they said it is of “far greater importance that all public business be open to the public.”
To understand this requires accepting that self-governance (democracy) will always be slower and messier. Dictatorships are fast and efficient, but the charter of this nation and this state provide for maximum government accountability, even if questions, confusion and delay become part of the process.
The record in Mississippi shows public officials enter office with one of two viewpoints. Too many, sadly, feel they have been anointed. Voters who were smart enough to elect them are suddenly not smart enough to be told what’s going on. Officials with this viewpoint are not necessarily mean or malicious; they just put efficiency ahead of inclusion.
The other group, much smaller, put on the mantle of openness. They strive to make sure people know the variables as well as their decisions. And —this is important — those who are inclusive are often amazed at this approach empowers them. Nothing complicated about it. Demonstrate trust in the people, and they will demonstrate trust in return. Be high-minded, sneaky and self-important and (1) little will get done and (2) time in office may be short.
This is not theory, it’s fact. Look around. If officials in a community are open and candid, look citizens in the eye and deal head-on with challenges and issues, the community will likely have a healthy economy and positive quality of life. If, on the other hand, officials tend to be self-important or secretive and standoffish, the community will likely be suffering from too-few jobs, rising crime and other woes.
Gregory, The Commercial Dispatch and others who persisted and outlasted with private funds the Columbus attorneys, are to be commended. Too often (and accurately) boards that want to ignore the law are victorious merely through delay and obfuscation. (You can fight City Hall, but it ain’t free.)
Another truth is that fewer and fewer media organizations report on local government, so it’s more important that citizens understand the burden of becoming informed has fallen to them.
The Supreme Court, of course, didn’t enter a discussion of the philosophy and benefits of open government to the officials in Columbus or elsewhere. The justices merely reminded us all Mississippi is a democracy. Civics 101.
The decision was unanimous.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.