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Complaint filed over city aldermen meeting — Closed-door meeting prompts request for ethics opinion

The Daily Leader has filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission regarding a recent closed-door meeting by a committee of the Brookhaven Board of Aldermen.

The complaint was filed in response to an unannounced meeting of Ward 1 Alderman Dorsey Cameron, Ward 4 Alderman Jason Snider and Ward 6 Alderman Shelley Harrigill on Tuesday, May 1, to discuss a feasibility study for the construction of a community center and public swimming pool, the latter of which is a controversial topic elected leaders have kicked around for years. Aldermen met in mayor Joe Cox’s office without posting public notice and refused to allow the newspaper to attend, saying protections for the public under the Mississippi Open Meetings Act did not apply because the majority of the seven aldermen were not present.

“They’re not having an illegal meeting,” Cox said from the door of his office. “They do not have a quorum.”

But committees of the board are considered public bodies and fall under the provisions of the Open Meetings Act — according to the law, notice of the meeting should have been posted publicly and the public should have been allowed to attend. No mention of the meeting or any other meeting of the same committee was made on the city’s blackboard in the courthouse lobby.

Additionally, previous comments Harrigill made to The Daily Leader concerning the city’s development of its comprehensive plan seemed to indicate aldermen were purposefully meeting in small groups to avoid a quorum and, thereby, the need to open the discussions to the public. The Mississippi Supreme Court last October upheld an ethics commission ruling against the City of Columbus for using the same quorum-avoiding tactics.

As part of its duties of administering and enforcing ethics in government and the law, the Mississippi Ethics Commission enforces the Open Meetings Act and the Public Records Act.

If the agency’s investigation into Brookhaven’s closed-door meetings finds aldermen have “willfully and knowingly” violated laws requiring transparency, it may impose fines on individual elected officials at a maximum of $500 for first offenses and $1,000 for second or subsequent offenses, plus any expenses incurred by the complainant during the process.