Talking about closed session is a good step

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 12, 2010

Something rare happened in the Natchez City Council Chambers Tuesday afternoon.

At 1:50 p.m. the Natchez Board of Aldermen voted to go into executive session in front a small crowd of department heads and residents.

It is not earth-shattering news, I assure you, but if you have ever attended a regular board meeting, you probably haven’t witnessed too many executive session votes. Even more rare was Tuesday’s debate about whether or not executive session rules applied to a discussion about Premier Gaming’s business plan and financing.

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Whether you believe that the city was right to go into executive session or that leaders were trampling the spirit of Mississippi’s Open Meetings Act, Tuesday’s debate on the issue is an encouraging sign and a small step toward more transparent government.

Unfortunately, such discussions rarely occur in front of the television cameras or even any members of the public.

My rule of thumb about Natchez Board of Aldermen meetings is if you want to know what is really going on in City Hall, all you have to do is show up an hour before board meetings are scheduled to begin.

Natchez conducts its meetings a little differently than most public meetings across the state.

Instead of starting executive sessions during the regular board meeting, Natchez leaders have found it useful to conduct their private business prior to Tuesday’s regular sessions. More often than not, residents arriving to attend the meeting wait in the council chambers while the mayor and aldermen finish their business in the small conference room next door.

To be clear, such a practice is not illegal. According to the Mississippi Public Records Act, “Any public body may enter into executive session for the transaction of public business; provided, however, all meetings of any such public body shall commence as an open meeting, and an affirmative vote of three-fifths of all members present shall be required to declare an executive session.”

Instead of voting to go into executive session during the regular board meetings, aldermen usually take their vote after finance committee meetings. These too are open to the public but are rarely attended by anyone other than the mayor, board members, the city attorney, the city clerk and a reporter from the newspaper.

Finance committee meetings usually begin two hours before the television cameras roll. With only three or four empty chairs lining the conference room wall, few members of the public are ever expected at these meetings.

As a result, any executive session debates and votes like Tuesday’s are never on camera and heard by relatively few.

Benefiting from this arrangement are those who want to meet with city officials privately. Because executive sessions happen before regularly scheduled board meetings, these people can appear before the city and leave before most residents file into the council chambers.

In many cases, knowing who has reason to talk to city leaders is just as much news as what the mayor and aldermen are discussing behind closed doors. The current arrangement makes it difficult for the public to know either.

As a result, much of the public sees and hears little concerning any potentially controversial issues. It’s a convenient arrangement for city officials.

Government is a messy process, as Tuesday afternoon’s debate clearly showed. But it is a process the public deserves to see.

Ben Hillyer is the web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3450 or by e-mail at