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Herald Objects To Abuse Of Closed City Meetings

WATER VALLEY – The North Mississippi Herald protested the use of executive session by the Water Valley Board of Aldermen during a special called meeting of the board Tuesday, May 27. 

    The Herald’s protest comes after many months of apparent abuse by the board of state law regarding executive sessions.

    Just in the past month, the board has closed its doors to the public for an hour and a half during their regular meeting May 4 and for about two hours during the special called meeting May 27.

    Herald reporter Jack Gurner submitted a letter to city officials as aldermen prepared to vote to close the meeting to the public. Gurner told the board that requirements under state law were not being met in order for the board to close the meeting.

    Attorney Benjamin E. Griffith wrote the following in “A Handbook for County Board Attorneys in Mississippi” which summarizes the technical requirements for a board to go into executive session. These requirements apply to city and county boards and are based on the Mississippi Supreme Court’s holding in Hinds County Board of Supervisors v. Common Cause of Mississippi:

    (1) The meeting must begin as an open meeting.

    (2) A member must make a motion in open meeting for the meeting to be closed in order to determine whether or not the Board should declare an executive session. The statute does not require a second to this motion, but the vote on this motion must be taken in open meeting. If a majority votes to close the meeting to make a determination on the question of executive session, the meeting is closed for this purpose.

    (3) No other business during this closed interim shall be considered until the vote has been taken on whether or not to declare an executive session. In order to go into executive session, a three-fifths majority of the Board must vote in favor of it.

    (4) The President of the Board must then reopen the meeting and announce publicly that the Board is going into executive session and give the reason for doing so, and this reason and the total vote on it must thereafter be recorded on the minutes of the meeting.

    (5) The vote to go into executive session applies only to that particular meeting on that particular day, and no other matter may be discussed at the executive session than the announced subject.

    When Gurner argued that the board must state their reason for going into executive session, board attorney David Burns said that would defeat the purpose.

    The Herald submitted a second letter to city officials on Friday, May 30, along with a copy of both the state law and the section of the Griffith handbook regarding executive sessions.

    In the letter, Gurner reiterated his objection and requested that the board follow the laws of the state of Mississippi.

    Gurner has been following the Water Valley Board of Aldermen since September 4 of last year when the board voted to deny a request for a tax exemption by BorgWarner.

    The tax issue had not been mentioned during the regular meeting and was not listed on the board’s agenda. The vote to deny BorgWarner’s request came after a lengthy executive session. Later, a city official confirmed that the tax exemption had been discussed during that executive session.

    Over the past eight months, the official agendas for the city aldermen’s meetings have included an executive session for “personnel matters, prospective real estate transactions, prospective litigation” or a variation of those terms.

    The state Supreme Court ruled that the public must be informed with sufficient specificity the reason for an executive session.  “To simply say, ‘personnel matters,’ or ‘litigation’ tells nothing,” the justices said, and failure to be specific constitutes a violation,” Dan Way, managing editor of the Columbus Dispatch, wrote in the Freedom of Information Spotlight. 

    “Without a specific summary of why an issue requires a closed session, the public cannot be certain a discussion requires a closed session, ” Way added.

    Herald Editor David Howell said that the public has a right to know.

    “Our readers who are not able to attend the meetings depend on the newspaper for information about the business their government conducts,” Howell said. “The more business is conducted behind closed doors, the more the public is denied information that affects them.”

    During the special called meeting on May 27, the aldermen conducted the following city business:

    • The board tackled the one agenda item listed as “fencing bids for airport” before entering executive session. The aldermen voted to accept the bid of $197,922.25 from Columbus Fence Company. The acceptance is subject to grant approval.

    • After returning to regular session from their two-hour executive session, the board voted to lift the suspension of a city worker from the cemeteries and parks department and allow him to return to work.

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