You might say I crashed a private party Monday night in downtown New Albany, Mississippi. I have done it before, and I promise, if given the opportunity, to do it again — and again. As is usually the case with such behavior, those who had arranged the private gathering weren’t thrilled to see me.
Rude? I think not.
Shortly before 7 pm. Monday night, a chance communication about a totally unrelated matter made me aware that a meeting was underway at the Magnolia Civic Center, where a “comprehensive plan” for the future of New Albany was being discussed. I put on my shoes and was there in under five minutes. While no attempt was made to keep me out, I was quickly aware that a few people in the room were not pleased that I showed up at the party.
This wasn’t a real party with festive beverages and food and music and dancing. This private gathering comprised sober, serious-minded, upright people. All of them are people with whom I am friendly. Some are friends I visit with from time to time. This event had the solemn purpose of discussing important taxpayer business — business involving a great deal of public money and potentially having enormous impact on all New Albany residents, both present and future.
The gathering was for the purpose of hearing a sales pitch from Philip Walker, a likeable, smart man from Nashville. He is a member of American Institute of Certified Planners. As the McGill sisters say in O Brother Where Art Thou, Walker is…”bona fide. He’s a suitor.” Specifically, he’s the suitor of a six-figure fee from the taxpayers of New Albany. He is, indeed, bona fide, certified, and claims a solid record of success in places like Russellville, Ark, Wilksboro, N.C., and Natchez, Miss.
Except for me, everyone in the room was there at the specific invitation of Ward One Alderman Amy Livingston. It was a private meeting to discuss public business, which is not in itself a problem. The problem stems from the fact that the meeting was attended by generous quorum of the New Albany Board of Aldermen (four of five members), and that no public notice of the meeting had been posted as the law requires.
The fact that this was a private gathering at which a person spoke to a quorum of the Board of Aldermen on a matter of public interest is a problem, perhaps a serious one. The way the gathering was put together conflicts with the broadly accepted democratic concept that public business should be conducted in public. In recent decades the word “transparency” has been employed to identify the idea that the public has a right to know. There are very few people who would openly argue that public business should be conducted secretly.
For more about the meeting itself, see this story posted earlier today on nanewsweb.com: http://nanewsweb.com/private-meeting-discuss-new-albany-business/
The Mississippi Open Meetings Act: It’s all about intent
Like most states, Mississippi has a “Sunshine” law. The Mississippi Open Meetings Act, which was first passed over 40 years ago, has been amended and defined many times by legislative action, court decisions and attorney-general opinions. Broadly, the act simply says that city boards, county boards, school boards and even the boards of private organizations, if they receive public money, must conduct their business in full view of the public.
There are, of course, many exceptions, such as allowing “executive sessions” for discussion of personnel matters, litigation, etc. In fairness it must be said that, as in most states, Mississippi’s sunshine law has been unevenly enforced. Few people — and I am not one of them — have a comprehensive idea of what is allowed and not allowed under the state sunshine law.
Was there a violation of the state sunshine law? I believe it is very likely there has been a violation, but only the state ethics commission and appropriate courts can make that judgment.
By putting together this private meeting, did Alderman Livingston have any evil intent? I think probably not. Nor did anyone else there accept her invitation with intent to do something flagrantly illegal. The city board took no action and I did not personally observe any discussion amongst the aldermen. A few asked questions, which the speaker answered.
I don’t anticipate anyone filing a formal complaint with the state ethics commission, but the circumstances could certainly invite a complaint and the ethics commission would have to make a determination. However, a statement by Alderman Livingston more than hints at a desire to conduct public business in a private meeting.
When asked why no public notice of the meeting was given, her exact answer was, “I didn’t think this needed to be public knowledge just yet.”
There you have it: a declared intent by Alderman Livingston to conduct public business in a manner that prevents the public from knowing what is going on.
Why officials must learn to play by the rules
Alderman Livingston is energetic, ambitious, and has some ideas that might be beneficial to the city. She campaigned hard and shrewdly and won her seat with an overwhelming majority. She wants better water, better sidewalks, more and better playgrounds, and she clearly wants her colleagues on the city board to consider retaining a city planner. I personally agree with a great deal of what she wants to do and hope she enjoys success. But attempting to do public business out of the public view is a very slippery slope.
In past cases, under the state open meeting law, the courts have not imposed harsh penalties on those who have violated the law. The common practice is to give elected officials a slap on the wrist and order them to “not do it again.” The courts have the power to undo actions and order reversal of decisions made while violating the sunshine laws.
No serious harm has been done yet. I am inclined to treat this as an innocent, rookie mistake, and to hope that Alderman Livingston will, in the future, seek and follow the advice of more experienced officials, or seek legal advice, as she attempts to accomplish what she wants to get done for New Albany.
It would be a shame to see the hard work on some inherently good thing wasted when a judge has to throw it out because it was accomplished carelessly and secretly.
The Freedom of Information office is located in Oxford, on the campus of the University of Mississippi. Those who wish to know more about what can and cannot be done under the state’s Open Meeting Act can visit their excellent website: http://www.nfoic.org/mississippi-foi-resources