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City of Brookhaven must answer complaint by Monday — Ethics commission gives officials 10 days

Brookhaven city officials are disputing an ethics complaint alleging illegal meetings by a committee of the board of aldermen and have asked for more time to prepare a response.

The Mississippi Ethics Commission last week granted the City of Brookhaven an additional 10 days to respond to a complaint filed by The Daily Leader for what appeared to be a closed, unposted meeting of the board’s swimming pool study committee on May 1, giving city attorney Joe Fernald a new response deadline of 5 p.m. Monday. Fernald’s May 23 letter said he would be unable to meet the original deadline due to ongoing court cases in which he is involved.

If the ethics commission’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.

The newspaper filed the ethics complaint after stumbling upon a May 1 meeting of the board’s swimming pool and community center study committee, consisting of Ward 1 Alderman Dorsey Cameron, Ward 4 Alderman Jason Snider and Ward 6 Alderman Shelley Harrigill.

The three aldermen — along with the city engineer and an architect — met behind a closed door and denied the newspaper’s request to sit in on the meeting, notice of which was not posted in advance. Harrigill and Mayor Joe Cox defended the meeting, saying protections for the public under the Mississippi Open Meetings Act did not apply to the committee because a majority of the seven aldermen were not present.

But the law identifies committees of the board as public bodies subject to the same rules for any board meetings — notice of the meeting should have been posted in advance, and any member of the public should have been allowed to attend. No mention of the meeting or any other meeting of the same committee — which was formed last October to study the feasibility of a public swimming pool, an old and controversial issue for Brookhaven — was posted on the city’s blackboard in the courthouse lobby, the board’s designated place for notices.

The Daily Leader also took issue with previous comments Harrigill made that suggests city officials purposefully met with comprehensive planning consultants in small groups to avoid a quorum so meetings would not need to be open 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.

The Daily Leader’s complaint with the ethics commission was received on May 9 and forwarded  to aldermen the following day. The city’s original deadline to respond was Thursday, May 24.

The newspaper later requested copies of the swimming pool committee’s minutes and was told no records were kept, which appears to be another violation of the Open Meetings Act. The newspaper’s ethics complaint did not address record-keeping.

Fernald declined to comment.