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Question raised over handling of executive session

The Brookhaven Board of Aldermen’s decision to go into anexecutive session with some members of the public Tuesday may haveviolated state open meetings laws.

An executive session was called on the grounds of “personnelmatters,” one of a few stipulations that allow a government body toclose a public meeting. The exemption allows a body to discuss the”performance, character, professional competence, or physical ormental health of a person holding a specific position,” as statedby the Mississippi Open Meetings Law.

Brookhaven citizens Jeanette Newton and Chasta Merchant were onthe agenda to discuss a complaint over city employees. But fellowcitizens Bernetta Character and Roy Smith were also allowed to stayin the closed meeting, which Mississippi Center for Freedom ofInformation hotline attorney Leonard Van Slyke indicated may havebeen improper.

Van Slyke said there is leeway for citizens directly involved inbringing a concern to be in executive session, but observers therefor moral support should not be allowed.

“If they’re observers, they’re not allowed to be in executivesession,” he said.

It is unclear what role Character and Smith served in thesituation. Van Slyke said if they were just present and had nothingto add to the debate, they were outside of the boundaries of aclosed meeting.

“They certainly had no business in there if they were just thereobserving and supporting her but they didn’t have any specificfacts to offer,” he said.

Brookhaven Police Chief Pap Henderson and City Prosecutor BradBoerner were also allowed to stay during last night’s closedmeeting.

Previously, Van Slyke has said selective inclusion ofindividuals in closed meetings defeats the purpose of calling aclosed meeting.

“You can’t pick and choose what members of the public you wantto let in,” Van Slyke said last November following a similarsituation in which a private citizen requested an executive sessionwith the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors. “You either have anopen meeting or an executive session.”

Meanwhile, Van Slyke said Wednesday it is his personal opinionthat the citizen’s complaint should have been made in open session,but discussed by board members in closed session.

“The presentation by the people complaining, that might shouldhave been done in open session,” he said. “They’re not part of thecouncil, and I think only the council should be part of theexecutive session … unless they’re talking to a specific employeeabout a personnel matter.”

When aldermen returned to open meeting, a motion was made thatcity officials consider the situation and write Newton aletter.

Afterward, the group of citizens could be heard airing theircomplaints against the police department, the city prosecutor, andthe justice court in the foyer of the government complex. The groupof citizens contended that the issue of some harassing textmessages sent to one of the citizen’s cell phones was handledincorrectly by local officials.