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Officials shouldn’t avoid integrity

Public officials sometimes violate the state’s Open Meetings Act — often knowingly and occasionally accidentally.

The act is pretty simple to understand. Except for a few exceptions, the meetings of public bodies are supposed to be open to the public.

But it appears a state official helped a city council violate that law. The Sun Herald reported that State Auditor Stacey Pickering held a meeting with four Diamondhead city council members without the public knowing.

If that’s true, that’s a big no-no. If a quorum of council members gathers, it’s considered a public meeting. And that means notice must be given so the public can attend.

Councilman-at-large Ernie Knobloch told the newspaper they did plan the meeting but originally intended to have only two councilmen at a time meet with Pickering to avoid having a quorum, which would make it an official public meeting.

That’s a troubling excuse. The council sought to dance around the law by having less than a quorum meet with Pickering. While that follows the letter of the law, it certainly violates the spirit of it.

But Pickering reportedly informed them that four members could be present since it was only an “informational meeting.”

There is no exception to the Open Meetings Act for “informational meetings.” The exceptions that are allowed are very specific and detailed.

The Mississippi Ethics Commission handles complaints against public bodies that have violated the Open Meetings Act, but the penalty for doing so is usually a small fine, though the potential fine can reach $10,000.

If the meeting in question took place as reported, Pickering owes the public an apology. His position is one that requires integrity and one that the public must place its trust in. The public deserves better than this.