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Openness not always easy but it’s right

Brookhaven city officials appear to be running afoul of the state’s Open Meetings Act in a couple different ways. In both situations, aldermen are meeting without the presence of the public, potentially making decisions about things that affect you without giving you the option of attending the meeting.

In one instance, three aldermen met as a committee to discuss a feasibility study for a proposed community center and swimming pool. The newspaper happened to see the meeting taking place and attempted to attend. But we were told to keep out, that the meeting was closed since there was not a quorum of aldermen present.

City officials said that as long as a quorum of the full board of aldermen was not present, the meeting could be closed to the public. But state law says otherwise. The state’s Open Meetings Act says that committee meetings are open to the public and a notice should be posted beforehand so the public can attend. No notice was posted.

“You should be allowed to attend unless it is a personnel issue or some other exempt purpose,” said Leonard Van Slyke, a media and First Amendment attorney in Jackson. “They would need to start the meeting in an open fashion and vote on any exempt purpose. If it is a committee of the board, then there is a quorum of the committee.”

The three aldermen present for the committee meeting in question make up that committee and no other aldermen were absent, according to city officials. That means a quorum of that committee was present. It should have been a public meeting, according to state law.

It gets worse from there. When discussing the city’s comprehensive plan project recently, Alderwoman Shelley Harrigill said aldermen have been meeting “two at a time” with consultants about the project. Doing so allows aldermen to keep the public out of the meetings, since a quorum is not present.

State law makes it clear that if a quorum of board members is present, the meeting must be open to the public.  But just because a quorum is not present, that does not mean the state’s Open Meetings Act does not apply. The state Supreme Court has ruled against governments who use non-quorum meetings as a tactic to keep the public out of meetings. The court ruled 9-0 last year that the city of Columbus was wrong to set up meetings with the mayor and three city council members, avoiding the city council’s quorum of four members.

Associate Justice Robert Chamberlin wrote that the city acted “with the express intent of circumventing the act.”

If Brookhaven is doing the same thing, it’s a violation of state law.

“However inconvenient openness may be to some, it is the legislatively decreed public policy of this state,” the MS Ethics Commission wrote.

We agree. It is not always easy to follow the state’s laws on government openness. But it is always right.