City leaders make changes toward openness

Published 1:11 am Sunday, December 26, 2010

Natchez  — Paris Winn has had his suspicions about the openness of local government before.

Five years ago when the City of Natchez sold bluff-top property to private condo developers, Winn became an involved taxpayer and soon thereafter got worried.

Earlier this year, when a proposed casino deal on another city-owned piece of riverfront land faced delay after delay, Winn went back to local aldermen meetings.

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“Everything seems to constantly go into some type of private meeting,” Winn said. “You really miss so much as a citizen. You know they are talking about deals and such, but you never can get the full story.”

Winn has been part of a growing, but still small, crowd of local citizens concerned with what their elected leaders may be doing behind closed doors.

And in 2010, city leaders seemed to take note.

For years, the Natchez Board of Aldermen started most regular meetings with a finance session in a small room attached to the public meeting room.

The meetings were open to the public, but were not advertised, started hours before the regular meeting’s posted time and were not recorded for the minutes.

The board sometimes went from the finance meetings to executive session, leaving members of the public who walked into an empty meeting room at the scheduled start time wondering what was going on.

But the board voted in November to move finance committee meetings out of a small conference room and into the main board room of the city’s Council Chambers, and to also begin taking minutes and recording those meetings in an effort to be more open with the public.

Alderman Bob Pollard said the change of venue and procedure were both done to make information easier for the public to get.

“Those meetings have always been open, and the door is always open for people to come in and listen, but we thought going out into the general room would make it easier for voters to come in, sit and listen,” Pollard said.

Alderman Dan Dillard, who made the motion to move the meeting and begin audio recording of those meetings, said his concern was that the procedure the board was using to enter executive session was inappropriate according to the Mississippi Open Meetings Law.

He said the law requires that boards enter executive session from a general session, not from a finance session.

Dillard said taking minutes and recording the finance session meetings helps the board stay in line with the open meetings law.

“I don’t think what we were doing was necessarily wrong, but I think we can move further along (in creating more open meetings) by doing what we did,” Dillard said. “The impetus on my part was more making sure we were keeping accurate records and the reasons why we went into executive session.”

But there is sometimes a difference of opinion on why and when the board should close the doors.

Alderman Mark Fortenbery said in his opinion its better to keep the doors open at all times. He said he’d rather not enter executive session ever.

“Aldermen have to be held to a higher standard,” he said. “When we are out there and the public is watching, some people may act different than when they aren’t sitting out there,” he said. “We all work for the city and the people of the city put us there to represent them. They have a right to know what is going on.”

Pollard and Dillard said there are some times when it is necessary to enter executive session, but it is always done to better the city.

“Contracts, personnel and litigations,” Pollard said. “When discussion about those things are going on, we go into executive session. If a prospect comes into town, they don’t want their competition knowing what they are doing. They don’t want it open and aired in the beginning.”

But Fortenbery said since all discussions are somehow related to public property or money, he’d rather keep the public informed on all phases of talks.

“It’s like me telling my boss I can’t tell him what’s going on at work,” he said.

“It’s not fair to the public to get behind closed doors and do private things,” Fortenbery said. “It’s my experience, that doing that usually comes back and bites you.

“It seems like you are danged if you do and danged if you don’t, but I think we are getting better with it.”

Dillard said he has read the law and knows there are 11 legitimate reasons to enter executive session. He said those reasons are fairly narrow.

“You can’t just say ‘contracts,’” Dillard said. “You have to be more specific because when you get down to it, almost everything has to do with legality, finance or personnel.”

And from a taxpayer’s point of view, Winn said he knows there is some need for executive session, but the longer a door is closed the less trust the public has in the leadership.

“Everyone is just going to presume y’all are screwing around behind the scenes,” Winn said. “I really feel that not really getting the full story causes people to trust no one in public office.