The Union County Board of Supervisors did something rare today: they went into an “executive session,” and they did it legally.
What’s so special about that? Good question, and here is the answer: it may have been the first time in the 146-year history of Union County that the letter of the law was followed when the county’s governing body made everyone leave the meeting so they could talk about something privately.
My friend J. Lynn West, editor of the New Albany Gazette (The NAG) has been covering various Union County governing boards — county boards, city boards, school boards, etc. — as a reporter for 40 years. Lynn said that never before in all of his years at The NAG had he seen the Mississippi Open Meetings Law strictly followed by any other board in Union County.
I’ve been in the news trade a little longer than Lynn, the last 23 years of it in Mississippi. During those years since 1993 I have covered hundreds of meetings of various kinds of public boards in several different Mississippi Counties. Before Monday morning I do not think I had ever seen any other board anywhere in Mississippi go into a closed meeting “according to Hoyle.”
I have been thrown out of countless board meetings, as has every other reporter working in Mississippi. Mississippi’s 1972 “Sunshine law” or “Open Meetings Act” forbids public business to be done in private and provides specific and sensible exemptions from the act. Litigation, certain personnel issues, contemplated acquisition or sale of real estate, recruitment of new businesses, etc. are the type things that Mississippi boards can discuss and act upon during legally called executive sessions..
Most of time, actually every time previously in my experience, it’s done in a very casual manner. The person running the meeting says simply, “Y’all are going to have to leave now so we can go into executive session.” Everybody obediently leaves and goes home, the board meets in secret, does whatever it does, and then they all go home or to their favorite bar of coffee shop.[It has always reminded me of the time in 1863 when Union Generals U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman walked into a small factory in Jackson, Miss. Neither of the two Yankee officers was notable for good personal grooming. They were ignored at first, the factory workers simply assuming that a couple more bums had wondered in out of the weather. As Sherman told the story in his Memoirs, Grant finally cried out, “You all are going to have to leave now. We’re going to burn this place down!”]
Mississippi law provides for a very specific procedure that must be followed for a board to go into executive session. Mississippi Attorney-General Jim Hood has provided boards and the public with a succinct summary of what must be done to have a lawful “executive session” in Mississippi.
Hood’s written instructions are as follows;
“Procedure for going into executive session;
“1. Meeting begins as open; member may move to close meeting to determine whether board needs to go into executive session; vote in open meeting; majority rules.
“2. Closed meeting: vote taken on whether to declare executive session, requires 3/5 of all members present.
“3. Board come back into open session and states statutory reason for executive session.
“4. Go into executive session, where action may be taken on stated subject matter only; minutes must be kept just as with open session.” Seems simple enough
The Union County Board of Supervisors, as instructed by County Board Attorney Thad J. Mueller, did it exactly that way Monday morning.
Why is it important that Mississippi boards follow this little ritual as the law provides?[You are probably thinking by now, “Lynn West and that Yankee sumbitch are just a couple of cantankerous old men!” Well, you got us there.]
But there is another reason, one with potentially huge consequences: Each time a Mississippi board violates the statute about how to go into executive session and fails to follow the required ritual, they lay themselves, and the people they represent, wide open to a lawsuit in which some “sneaky” lawyer files a motion with some “liberal” federal judge.
And the judge says, “Attorney Bilkem of the firm Fleecem, Bilkem, and Milkem makes a good point, and the court agrees. The present board failed to go into executive session in the manner that the law requires. The board bought that land (or fired that lazy employee) unlawfully. You are hereby ordered to undo whatever it was that you did…cancel that land deal on which somebody is building a new factory or hire back that worthless employee with back pay. And y’all have a blessed day!”
The newly constituted Union County Board of Supervisors is off to a good start. Obeying the Mississippi Open Meetings law is a laudable milestone.
The board met during its executive session with Randy Kelley and Josh West of the Three Rivers Planning and Zoning District to discuss a matter related to a local industry.
In other business Monday morning the board…
–Approved the transfer of taxes collected from the State Special Fund to the General Fund as required by statute.
–Approved bailiff pay.
–Approved list of “tags surrendered” for December 2015 and January 2016.
–Approved circuit clerk payment for term of court fees.
–Approved renewal of a lease on a communications tower from the Mississippi Forestry Commission and approved a lease of 0.75 acres at the fairgrounds for equipment storage. No cash is involved in either lease.
–Approved part-time employment of Joel McCraw as a dispatcher for the Union County Sheriff’s Department.
The county board will meet again at 10 a.m. on Monday, March 7, 2016.
Go to the following link for the full text of the Mississippi Open Meetings Act http://www.ethics.state.ms.us/ethics/ethics.nsf/PageSection/A_meetings_meetings_law/$FILE/Open%20Meetings%20Act.htm?OpenElement