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Saturday, October 19, 2019

Miss. reporter, newspaper win court battle over closed-door city council meetings

By John Sammon | Sep 25, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) – The Mississippi Supreme Court has affirmed a decision that the mayor of the city of Columbus and its city council violated the Open Meetings Act by holding private meetings to discuss economic issues and building renovations in a manner intended to avoid requirements of the Act.

City officials had earlier based a defense that the Open Meetings Act was not violated because a majority of city council members were not present at any one meeting. Instead, three members were present (a non-majority) at each of several meetings, the Sept. 7 ruling stated. 

However, the court decided the meetings were conducted in a deliberate manner to sidestep OMA requirements and that the meetings should have been open for public participation.

Columbus Mayor Robert E. Smith Sr., mayor since 2006, and members of the seven-member city council (including the mayor) held four pairs of prearranged, non-social meetings in early 2014. 

The meetings were conducted with a sub-quorum majority (four city council members constitutes a quorum).

The mayor does not always vote and only does in the event of a tie vote of the city council.

On four separate occasions, the mayor met with three city council members and then in a meeting held later in the day with three of the remaining members. The topics discussed in both sets of meetings were on the same issues, retail development and renovation of public buildings.

Robert Gregory, reporter for the Commerical Dispatch, requested to sit in on the meetings but was denied access. Gregory then filed an Open Meetings Act complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission. 

The Commission found the city council violated the Open Meetings Act and instructed members to cease and desist from similar violations in the future.

The mayor and city council appealed to the Chancery Court of Lowndes County. The Dispatch stepped in as petitioner in place of Gregory. On May 24, 2016, the trial court found in favor of the Ethics Commission that the Council gatherings had violated the Act.

The mayor and city council appealed to the state Supreme Court.

In its affirmation of the trial court decision the high court stated that when it comes to the Open Meetings Law, the rules are “clear and unambiguous.”

“The gatherings should have been open to the public,” the high court opinion brief stated.    

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