‘Personnel’ not reason to shut out the public

Published 12:03 am Tuesday, August 7, 2012

There’s tension in the room. The four regular umpires for youth league sports are at a city council meeting. Last week they presented a letter asking for a raise from $15 per game to $30 per game. City officials promised to “get back to them” tonight.

A question is whether discussion of the raise is a proper topic for a closed, executive session. Under the Mississippi Open Meetings Act, is this a “personnel matter?”

The answer, although many city councils and boards of supervisors and recreation commissions would want to use that rationale for a private discussion, is no.

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This is not a matter of interpretation. The explicit language of Section 25-41-7(4)(a) in Mississippi law defines “personnel” conversations that qualify for privacy as: “matters relating to the job performance, character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of a person holding a specific position.”

In the example, there is no issue of whether the umps are doing a good job. There’s no issue of whether they are properly certified, maintain decorum, know the rules of the game or anything else. Although there may be some issue as to whether they are nuts for asking for double pay in this economy, this is a budgetary matter.

The code is explicit on budgetary matters.

Section (k) addresses that. It reads: “The exemption provided by this paragraph includes the right to enter into executive session concerning a line item in a budget which might affect the termination of an employee or employees,” but then continues, “All other budget items shall be considered in open meetings.”

For emphasis, let’s read it again: “All other budget items shall be considered in open meetings.”

Formerly in Mississippi, boards and councils seeking answers to how state laws applied to open meetings and open records questions could write to the attorney general, as they still can on any legal matter. In a couple of weeks, they get a response. An “opinion letter” provides an official response to use for guidance. More recently, boards and councils as well as citizens have been able to complete an online form and submit it to the Mississippi Ethics Commission for open meetings and records questions.

Although all previous AG opinion letters and ethics rulings are on the Internet, it would take a long time to research whether “personnel matter” questions are the most common. If they’re not, it’s close.

The exception is often abused, used as a catch-all when it should not be.

A likely reason is that personal privacy is both valued and not to be trifled with.

Personnel management is one of the more challenging aspects of serving in any supervisory capacity, whether in a public or private setting. There are so many laws and regulations — has a mayor who mentions to a civic club the city clerk is on maternity leave violated her medical privacy? — that private discussion of anything to do with employees or employment seems the safe alternative.

Adopting such a posture or policy, however, ignores the rival and equally important interest in accountability to the citizens. After all, it is their money that is being allocated based on such discussions and decisions.

To emphasize:

• A school board discussion of whether to add teaching or coaching positions is not a “personnel matter.”

• A discussion by a board of supervisors of whether to increase the deductible on the health plan for road workers is not a “personnel matter.”

• A city council discussion on whether there will be across-the-board raises for city employees is not a “personnel matter.”

Mississippi law narrows and limits personnel topics legally to discuss in closed session as those “relating to the job performance, character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of a person holding a specific position.”

Temptation to broaden the statutory definition or apply it in other contexts is understandable, but undermines the public’s trust in whether their officials are deliberating in their best interests.

That means a motion to consider closing a discussion for a “personnel matter” is so overbroad as to be noncompliant. The statute indicates a motion in proper form would be “to consider reappointment of the fire chief” or “to discuss a complaint filed against the track coach.”

And it means the discussion of whether our umpires get a raise must be in public.

The “personnel matter” exception is narrow, an appropriate basis is required and that basis must be disclosed.


Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist and the assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.