Public&8217;s business must be decided in open manner

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2006

An old saying jokes that there are two things you don&8217;t want people to see you make: laws and sausages.

I&8217;m quite certain most people would agree with the latter, but the need to see exactly how the former is done is at the core of open government.

And that also applies to any discussions or decisions that our elected officials make about spending our public money.

Email newsletter signup

Watching how a disagreement over new hires in the Natchez planning department played out shows just how important it is for to keep those discussions out in the open &8212; and on the record.

No two people who attended a Natchez Board of Aldermen work session recently remember it the same way.

Did they agree to hire one person? Two people? Three? None?

It seems no one can quite agree &8212; and now City Clerk Donnie Holloway says there was only room in the budget for one new hire.

It&8217;s not unusual to have conflicting memories from a meeting &8212; we&8217;ve all been in that situation where you think something&8217;s been communicated just fine, but how the message is heard is completely different.

But hiring three new people for one city department &8212; effectively doubling the staff, according to one alderman &8212; is a big change &8212; and a lot of taxpayer money.

And city officials should have made sure everyone &8212; including the public &8212; was on the same page before anyone took action on the hirings.

Now the city is in the terrifically awkward position of having hired three people it may not be able to afford. Imagine how you would feel if you were hired for a job and your future was now being debated in the newspaper. Aldermen could have avoided the situation by streamlining their communication and keeping their decisions out in the open.

Aldermen made this decision &8212; or didn&8217;t, depending on whom you ask &8212; at an executive session at a work session at which no minutes are taken.

Their excuse for acting in executive session?

They were discussing personnel.

Executive sessions on personnel should be reserved for talking about the good name and character of employees, not the decision of how to use taxpayer money to make new hires.

As a newspaper, we&8217;ve been remiss in not demanding that the aldermen be more open with these work sessions.

While technically open to the public and the media, the work sessions aren&8217;t as well publicized as regular meetings &8212; and that&8217;s our fault, too.

But aldermen must take official minutes of these meetings so that there is a public record of their discussions &8212; especially when it comes to spending public money. Not only that, but it would help their communication &8212; if you take a vote, everyone is on the record and on the same page.

Better yet, they should make decisions such as authorizing new hires in an official, open meeting.

They certainly don&8217;t have to conduct interviews in public, but aldermen need to have a hand in the authorization of public funds &8212; and they need better knowledge of how much is available before a department head doubles his staff.

Alderman Theodore &8220;Bubber&8221; West &8212; who&8217;s in the camp of believing the aldermen authorized two hires, if you&8217;re keeping score &8212; has suggested the city review its personnel policy to determine the best way to make hires. It&8217;s a great idea aldermen need to follow.

And as they do, they need to make certain those discussions stay public, too.

Kerry Whipple

Bean is editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3541 or by e-mail at