Board was right to insist on openness
It’s nice when things are done right.
The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors did it right Monday when they denied a request for an executive session by the CEO of Arrow Disposal Services Inc., the county’s new trash collection contractor. Richard Urrutia made the trip over from Dothan, Alabama to give the board an update on his company’s first two weeks on the job — which have been a little weird, thanks to months of garbage neglect by ousted company Waste Pro — and, apparently, thought he was going to get into some material too sensitive for the public’s ears.
He never made a formal request for an executive session, but it was obvious he had asked for a closed-door meeting during the 10 minutes of hand-shaking and “how-you-doin’s’” that go on before, after and sometimes during, a county board meeting.
One of the supervisors could be heard telling Urrutia before the meeting started, “We’ll ask Bob (Allen, board attorney) to call an executive session” when it became the CEO’s turn to take the podium. After the board had its own one-hour private meeting concerning the state auditor’s demand they personally reimburse the county $1.6 million for four years’ improper insurance payments, the same supervisor led Urrutia back into the room, saying, “Don’t leave. You can still talk, we just can’t do it in executive session.”
At some point during the meeting, the question was whispered to Allen, whose eyebrows went up for a second before he shook his head, “no.” Good call, Bob.
Why Urrutia wanted a closed session for his presentation is beyond me.
Not only did he not talk about anything that would fit under the Mississippi Open Meetings Act’s 14 exemptions that allow public meetings to be temporarily closed, what he finally discussed in the open was information Lincoln County residents needed to know — he talked about the deadline for putting garbage at the roadside, about changes to garbage routes, about properly bagging and canning. He even gave out a new hotline residents can call if one of Arrow’s trucks skips their home on pick-up day (866-440-3983).
Maybe he wanted a closed meeting to protect Arrow’s name from embarrassment — the company isn’t quite settled into Lincoln County yet and has missed a few pick-ups during the two weeks it’s been on the job. But Lincoln Countians who have built miniature Mt. Everests of garbage bags in their yard after a year of Waste Pro inconsistency are willing to forgive a little adjustment period. More importantly, “potential embarrassment” is not an allowable exemption under the open meetings law.
Supervisors smartly avoided a break with the law by making Urrutia give his talk in the open.
Already once this year, Arrow has been involved in a little secrecy. The Mississippi Ethics Commission in August backed up a complaint by The Natchez Democrat and the Mississippi Justice Institute alleging the mayor and board of aldermen in Natchez had broken the law by negotiating its contract with Arrow in executive session. Natchez hid the negotiations under the law’s exemption that allows private talks for industry expansion, which was dishonest and a legal no-no.
Even if the commission doesn’t fine Natchez city officials — it’s a first offense, so it probably won’t — the whole ordeal is a black eye on the face of public trust.
It would have been a shame if Arrow’s honeymoon in Lincoln County — after Waste Pro’s shenanigans, supervisors were so happy to have Arrow they asked them to come in before the contact’s start date — had been spoiled by an ethics commission investigation into an illegal meeting.
Contact Managing Editor Adam Northam at firstname.lastname@example.org