County supervisors still grappling with open meeting issues

Published 1:12 am Sunday, December 26, 2010

NATCHEZ — Several months after the Mississippi Ethics Commission cited the Adams County Board of Supervisors for violating the state’s Open Meetings Act, county leaders say the issue is still gray.

The board’s February 2009 vote to discuss economic development funding in executive session was the crux of the ethics’ finding, board members say the debate extends beyond just that one meeting.

Using the benefit of hindsight, most board members agree at least certain parts of the 2009 meeting should have been open to the public.

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Since the citation, board members say the board has improved on providing reasons for entering closed sessions, but some also said more detail can be provided.

Almost all members said they do not have law degrees, and for better or worse, decisions about executive session are often up to the board attorney.

Legitimate grounds?

Each supervisor cited industrial prospects, personnel and litigation as legitimate grounds for closing the door to the pubic, reporters and cameras.

Most members said talks about industrial prospects must always be handled in executive session. Board President Darryl Grennell said the board often signs nondisclosure agreements with industrial prospects, so it is vital not to leak the information to avoid jeopardizing negotiations.

District 3 Supervisor Thomas “Boo” Campbell said three or four years ago an industry considering relocating in Adams County cut off negotiations because the board discussed the prospect publicly.

Campbell said the company advised officials with the county that the reason they were no longer considering Adams County was because the information went public. This provides a good example of why it is important to keep those types of negotiations under wraps, Campbell said.

District 2 Supervisor Henry Watts said litigation issues should only be discussed in executive session when the possibly of a lawsuit is “more than likely” to occur.

“It has to be to the point that they have a lawyer, because potentially anybody can sue,” Watts said.

He said something that has the potential to make someone mad enough to possibly sue the board should not qualify.

District 5 Supervisor S.E. “Spanky” Felter had a broader view of what qualifies for closed sessions under the litigation exception.

He said some sensitive situations, such as juvenile justice, can qualify for closed meetings in order to prevent an individual from suing the county.

“When you start talking about a kid, you can get into serious trouble real easy,” Felter said.

Opinions vary about what qualifies as personnel, as well.

Watts said details of a person’s job performance, references to insubordination or an employee’s character usually qualify for personnel.

District 1 Supervisor Mike Lazarus said what qualifies as personnel is not quite cut and dry.

Discussing an employee’s arrest in an open meeting, for example, should probably qualify as a personnel issue, even if that employee was already voted to be put on unpaid administrative leave.

“Some things are not best to come out, for example, (discussing) an employee (who was arrested) that may be innocent,” Lazarus said.

“That’s why we have court systems.”

Felter said he disagreed with a belief of Grennell, Lazarus and Campbell that a recent discussion about the new county administrator’s salary should be conducted in executive session.

The board passed a vote to have a closed discussion with a 3-2 majority. Felter and Watts voted against entering executive session.

Fetler said salary was an issue the public should be aware of, since it is taxpayer dollars being spent. He said the salary discussion should not have qualified as “personnel” because the board had already agreed on a top candidate, so the name did not need to remain private.

Grennell said the board had not officially decided on a top candidate, which is why the board entered executive session, to avoid naming names that might not be offered the job. He said the salary discussion could have changed their minds about who to hire, so it qualified as personnel.

Grennell said sometimes people push for open sessions when they should legitimately be closed.

“Sometimes (board members) are pushing to be open because they want it open and not because it didn’t qualify. I am never trying to hide anything, but when (the discussion) involves peoples names and stuff I really don’t like that.” Grennell said.

Should 2009 EDA discussion have been closed?

Campbell said he disagreed with the ethics commission’s findings at the time he made the decision,

“At that particular time, yes, (the discussion qualified for executive session.) We were talking about possibly personnel issues, but (the ethics commission) called it different,” Campbell said.

The board was unsure if cutting the funding of the EDA would jeopardize two jobs of EDA employees, board members said. They later learned those employees were not employees of the county.

“A lot of times, it’s a thin line between right and wrong. It’s a judgment call. I don’t know anybody that ever lived and worked that didn’t make some errors,” Campbell said.

Grennell said he was out of the loop about the EDA funding issue at the February 2009 meeting until after the board decided to take action in executive session.

“I was shocked that the board was stopping the (EDA) funding,” he said.

He said when he learned the board wanted to cut the funding he suggested the board defer any action until discovering if it was possible in the first place and how it would affect those positions.

Lazarus said making the EDA discussion closed was probably in violation of the Open Meeting Act, in hindsight.

“That was kind of stretch to call it personnel. The people at EDA didn’t work for the county, and they probably were not going to lose their jobs,” Lazarus said.

He said at the time, he did not have much experience, however, to determine is the issue qualified as a personnel exception.

“I’d only been in office for a month when that happened. I’d hoped some of the other guys on the board would have stepped up then,” he said.

Watts said he was unsure whether the session qualified was a gray area.

“I don’t disagree with the (ethics commission findings),” Watts said.

He said the discussion about cutting funding did not qualify for executive session, but it brought with it potential personnel issues.

Watts said the board probably had the session closed as a preventative gesture to those employees who jobs may or may not have been on the line. The board was unsure how the decision would affect those jobs, Watts said.

“Open meetings are to protect citizens and to benefit the public. Saying something openly when you have the wrong information is not benefiting the public.”

Open meetings, past present, future?

Campbell said the board has probably violated the open meetings act more than the one time they were cited, but it has never been deliberate.

“We’ve had some hairline cases, but we have not deliberately violated it,” Campbell said.

“I think we are obeying the letter of the law,” he said.

Felter said he cannot remember other times where the board violation the law with closed sessions.

“But that is what the board attorney is there for,” he said.

Grennell said he has recently made efforts to handle executive session issues carefully, but the board always has room to improve.

“I guess we could provide more detail, for example, what area of personnel,” Grennell said.

Grennell said from now on, he will direct the board attorney to provide more specific details on how issues qualify as an exception to the Open Meetings Act. He said he will yield the responsibly to the attorney to find the legal balance of providing the correct amount of detail.

“Some of these issues are very delicate, and I don’t want to get the board in trouble.”

Watts said there are many items the board discusses privately that he thinks should be in open session. The board should talk openly to avoid an issue from being construed by the public as a cover-up, he said.

“Sometimes we don’t know what we’re covering up, but sometimes the supervisors know enough to be considered cover-up.”