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Meeting loophole is dangerous precedent

The Mississippi Ethics Commission is in danger of providing every city and county government in the state with a loophole that allows them to circumvent the state’s Open Meetings Act.

In choosing to side with the City of Brookhaven in the newspaper’s complaint about a closed meeting we feel should have been open to the public, the commission is creating a way for public bodies to operate out of view of the public.

The newspaper’s complaint was simple: A committee of the Board of Aldermen meeting regularly to discuss a controversial topic should be open to the public. But the city argued three aldermen meeting together multiple times to discuss the feasibility of a swimming pool was not a committee because the board’s meeting minutes did not show that a committee was formally created.

The Ethics Commission agreed, and sent a message to public bodies throughout the state that working around the Open Meetings Act is as simple as omitting information about committees from board minutes.

The group of aldermen met three times, self-identified as a committee and functioned as a de facto committee. The city clerk described them as a committee and the folks meeting with aldermen in closed doors described it as a committee. An alderman not invited to join the group complained publicly about not being on the committee. By law, committee meetings should be open to the public.

Everyone involved treated the group as a committee and the group did the work of a committee. To us, that’s a committee that should be meeting in full view of the public, not in private.

We will ask the Ethics Commission to reconsider the case, and we hope this time they see fully the negative consequences if they allow the previous decision to stand.

A public body that can meet behind closed doors simply by refusing to declare a committee to be official is a public body that can make decisions without public input. It seems unwise and dangerous to give any public body that kind of freedom from the needed scrutiny provided by an open meeting.