Leadership isn’t about keeping secrets

Published 12:05 am Sunday, March 17, 2013

Beyond being popular enough to garner a winning number of votes in an election, is Calvin Butler any more special than any other Adams County citizen?

Sure he was elected as our representative supervisor — and has the distinction of being alphabetically first by last name when choosing a supervisor to use as an example. But should he keep secrets from the public?

What about supervisors David Carter or Darryl Grennell?

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Do they deserve to have lots of special, privileged information just because a majority voted for them?

How about supervisors Angela Hutchins or Mike Lazarus? They should know a few secrets, right?

Wrong. Beyond making decisions on your behalf as your representative in government, county supervisors are just like us — or should be.

Mississippi has laws to prevent elected officials from meeting behind closed doors and keeping secrets from the public.

The open meetings law is pretty clear. In most cases private, executive sessions should only be allowed for a few reasons — personnel matters such as a person’s job performance review, matters of pending litigation, land acquisition, etc.

All of those are exemptions with roots relating to either protecting an individual’s right to privacy — in the case of personnel matters — or preventing public disclosure of scuttling a deal or allowing a competitor to obtain too much information.

Nowhere in the law does it say, “We can meet secretly if we want to learn some secret information.”

On Tuesday, it seems, Adams County supervisors — or at least a few of them — aim to stretch the bounds of the law a bit all for the sake of their own curiosity.

Supervisors have been invited to meet with the highly secretive and rarely talkative board of trustees of the Natchez Regional Medical Center.

The citizens of Adams County own the hospital, but the hospital’s leadership likes to operate as if they don’t.

Tuesday’s invitation to meet apparently stems from the county supervisors’ collective frustration with the hospital board’s unwillingness to share details of its out-of-court settlement with a former management firm.

Proceeds of the settlement — purported to be more than $20 million based on several sources close to the hospital board — isn’t money that belongs to the hospital’s board of trustees, but is money that — like the hospital itself — is owned by the people of Adams County.

Unfortunately, board of trustee members made a gross error when they agreed to sign off on a sealed court settlement. Now the people entrusted in protecting the county’s hospital are sworn to keep secrets from the hospital’s owners.

The hospital board invited county supervisors to a meeting, attempting to get them to sign a confidentiality agreement before hearing the settlement details. That may work to shut up a few disgruntled supervisors, but doing so violates the spirit of the open meetings law — as well as common sense. A public hospital’s business should be made public.

Letting a few elected officials in on the secret still doesn’t make it right.

The entire public needs to know the details. It’s their money.

For county supervisors to truly lead, they should draw a line in the sand and refuse to meet secretly with the hospital board.

Beyond that, perhaps taking the matter back to court would be the best way to unseal the settlement details and thus make the public’s business truly public again.


Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.