By Jack Gurner
The issue of conducting government business in private has come up again after State Senator Lydia Chassaniol introduced a couple of bills recently that would make it easier for officials to meet behind closed doors.
The Republican Senator from Winona represents District 14, which includes six of Yalobusha County’s 11 precincts including Sylva Rena, Oakland, Scobey, portions of Coffeeville and Scuna-Vann’s Mill. She wants to limit the provisions of the Open Meetings Act to government meetings where a quorum is present.
For example, if you have a government body with five members, at least three have to be present for there to be a quorum. So, if you hold a series of meetings where only two members are present at a time, you don’t have a quorum and you wouldn’t have to let in the public and, more importantly, the nosy folks from the press.
The Ethics Commission and the state’s courts have repeatedly deemed such practices, called a “rolling quorum,” as illegal under the state’s sunshine laws, according to one of those nosy press folks, Bryan Stole of the Greenwood Commonwealth.
Charlie Mitchell, another nosy press person and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, said the law is clearly targeted at the Ethics Commission’s last three rulings which faulted the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors, the mayor and board of aldermen of Yazoo City, and the Columbus City Council for splitting meetings into groups of less than a quorum to avoid having members of the public and press present.
“The timing of it indicates it is clearly a response to the Ethic Commission’s rulings,” Mitchell said. “The commission says that that’s not what the law means, so the senator apparently wants to change the law.”
Stole quoted Will Bardwell, a Jackson attorney and president of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information as saying, “You are either opposed to open and honest government, or you’re in favor of it. It certainly appears that Sen. Chassaniol has come down on the side opposing open and honest government.”
Tom Hood, the executive director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, the body charged with enforcing the Open Meetings Act, said Chassaniol’s bill would make it far easier for boards to hold critical discussions or debate public policy without giving members of the public and the press a chance to be present.
“The effect of that is that when you get to the formal public meeting, there’s no public debate or discussion because the matter has already been decided in private,” Hood said.
It’s possible that the public officials involved may not even realize they are being manipulated into breaking the law and abusing the public trust. Maybe they are being told it’s in the best interest of their community. Or, worse, they know what they are doing and allow it to happen because it is the easiest course of action.