Columbus must open its municipal meetings

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Governmental bodies cannot set up meetings of less than a majority of public officials to evade the state’s Open Meetings Act, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

In a suit filed by The Columbus Dispatch news organization, the court ruled 9-0 that the city of Columbus was wrong to set up pairs of meetings with the mayor and three city council members apiece in 2014, avoiding the city council’s quorum of four members. Those meetings were to discuss an agreement between the city and an economic development agency and maintenance of public buildings, according to the Associated Press.

After being excluded from the meetings, a Dispatch reporter filed an ethics complaint and the state Ethics Commission ruled that such “piecemeal” quorums were illegal. In an appeal by the city, Chancery Judge Kenneth Burns also sided with the Dispatch.

The city, supported by the Mississippi Municipal League, had argued that no gathering where a quorum wasn’t present could be a “meeting” under terms of the law, because the council could take no final action without a quorum present. But the court disagreed.

“The city acted with the express intent of circumventing the act,” Associate Justice Robert Chamberlin wrote for the court. “The gatherings were preplanned. The attendees invited purposely constituted less than a quorum. The gatherings were for the express goal of discussing city business. Further, the facts support that city business was conducted and policy formulated at the gatherings.”

Mike Hurst of the Mississippi Justice Institute, which represented the Dispatch, said the case was an important precedent. The institute is representing a Lauderdale County man in a similar case against county supervisors.

“Whether raising taxes, spending taxpayer money or issuing regulations that affect people’s lives and property, people want to know what their government is doing,” Hurst said in a statement.