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Ethics commission backs city in meetings complaint

The Mississippi Ethics Commission has dismissed The Daily Leader’s complaint against the City of Brookhaven for a closed-door meeting of three aldermen earlier this year.

The commission ruled against the newspaper’s allegation that a May 1 private meeting of three aldermen and two city consultants was a violation of the state’s open meetings act, deciding the group could not be recognized as an official subcommittee of the board because a vote declaring it so was not found in the board’s minutes. The commission accepted the city’s argument the self-identified subcommittee of Ward 1 Alderman Dorsey Cameron, Ward 4 Alderman Jason Snider and Ward 6 Alderwoman Shelley Harrigill was not official, and therefore not required to post advance notice of their planning discussion nor allow the public to attend.

Leonard Van Slyke, a First Amendment and media law attorney who works for the Mississippi Press Association and often advises The Daily Leader, said the commission’s ruling could set a dangerous precedent that allows local governments statewide to hide their discussions within unofficial committees.

“I think it might open the door for a public body to have these committees do a lot of things without the public being aware. It will never be noticed,” Van Slyke said. “That’s a potential problem, and something that needs to be addressed. Any time two people sit down to talk about city business, you can’t call that a committee, but you’re getting pretty close at this point.”

The Daily Leader will ask the ethics commission to reconsider its decision and appeal the findings if necessary.

“We hope the commission will reconsider the case. As it stands, governments will now have more opportunities to conduct the public’s business out of view of the public,” said Luke Horton, the newspaper’s publisher. “We all benefit, including government bodies, from more transparency, not less.” 

The newspaper filed the complaint on May 9 after stumbling onto a May 1 closed-door meeting of Cameron, Snider and Shelley, along with city engineer Mike McKenzie of WGK Engineers and Elley Guild Hardy architect Taylor Claussen, in the small conference room in mayor Joe Cox’s office. The group was discussing a feasibility study for the construction of a community center and swimming pool, a controversial topic that comes up in city discussions every few years.

Aldermen shut the door to the conference room when they saw the newspaper’s reporter at the front office windows. When Cindy Smith, the mayor’s secretary, knocked on the door and relayed the reporter’s request to attend the meeting, McKenzie refused on aldermen’s behalf. 

The full board voted against the pool and community center without discussion on May 15 after Cox read a prepared statement against the project.

The Daily Leader provided the ethics commission with audio recordings and screenshots of social media posts by Brookhaven officials who referred to the group of Cameron, Snider and Harrigill as a subcommittee of the board.

Harrigill declared the group was a “committee that was recommended by the mayor and the board of Aldermen and approved on the record” during an explanation on her Facebook page, and city clerk Samantha Melancon told the newspaper via text the three aldermen were a “subcommittee of the board studying the feasibility of community center and pool.”

Additionally, a May 14 letter sent to the city from Elley Guild Hardy describes its architect as “meeting with the subcommittee to discuss the wants and needs of the community,” and McKenzie called the group a committee while giving his final report on May 15, saying the committee had met three times.

The ethics commission reviewed the board’s minutes from all three meetings in October — when Harrigill said the board formed the committee — and ruled against The Daily Leader when it found no mention of the committee’s formation.

Layne Bruce, executive director of the press association, said it looks to him as though the ethics commission made their ruling on a technicality.

“The definition of what constitutes a committee of the board of aldermen — the rub here is over whether those aldermen who met were doing so under the guise of committee work,” he said. “If this is left unchecked, I am concerned it could lead to instances of groups deliberately using such a loophole to hold meetings in private.”

Bill Jacobs, previous owner of The Daily Leader who served on the press association’s government affairs committee and helped lobby the Legislature to pass sunshine laws in the 1980s, called the ethics commission’s ruling “disturbing.”

“I am puzzled by the decision, as it flies in the face of the spirit of the law and closes the door for transparency in the actions of local government,” Jacobs said. “This ruling impacts every city and county in the state, so I suspect on appeal this ruling will be set aside. While the incident here in Brookhaven did not involve a blatant attempt to hide actions or deceive, it was more of an ignorance of the law’s requirements. This decision, however, opens the opportunity in those communities elsewhere in the state where local politicians might want to deceive and hide behind closed doors.”

The ethics commission also ruled against the newspaper’s allegations aldermen routinely meet in non-quorum groups to circumvent transparency requirements, saying insufficient evidence exists to back the claim. The complaint was made after Harrigill said aldermen used the practice to meet with city planners.