County seeking clarity on executive session matter

Published 12:11 am Thursday, August 7, 2014

NATCHEZ — Representatives of the Adams County Board of Supervisors said Wednesday they would seek clarification from the state ethics commission to determine if the board could legally enter into executive session to interview nominees for appointees to county boards.

The board entered into executive session Monday for two items. The first item, a discussion of the bankruptcy strategy for Natchez Regional Medical Center, clearly qualifies for closed-door meetings under the state’s open meeting laws.

The second item, interviews with four nominees for the Natchez-Adams School District’s board of trustees, however, is in question.

Email newsletter signup

Board attorney Scott Slover said Monday the executive session was justified under the personnel provision in the law, a position he reiterated Wednesday.

Mississippi Code 25-41-7(a) states executive session can be used for “transaction of business and discussion of personnel matters relating to the job performance, character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of a person holding a specific position.”

School board members are given a stipend, Slover said, and the board by its appointment essentially “hires” them.

“They do get compensation for their provisions and they are appointed for a term limit, but we can’t actually fire them for that term,” Slover said.

The interviews are also closed out of consideration for those who are nominated for the position, Slover said.

“Most of the people who interview for these things don’t get hired, and that can get embarrassing for most candidates,” he said. “We want them to speak and be frank about what they are thinking and why they think they are better than the other candidates.”

Open records expert attorney Leonard Van Slyke said Wednesday the 1989 Hinds County Board of Supervisors vs. Common Cause case might be a relevant legal precedent to consider.

In that case, the Hinds County board had entered executive session to discuss filling a vacancy on the Hinds County board of supervisors on the grounds it was a personnel matter.

The court ruled that personnel matters “are restricted to matters dealing with employees hired and supervised by the board, not those employees of some other county official and not other county officials themselves.”

Van Slyke said, based on his reading of the case, the school board appointment may not qualify.

“The board could only go into executive session for its employees or those it supervises,” Van Slyke said. “The question out there is would that (school board position) be considered somebody they supervise?

“I don’t really think it can. (The supervisors) make the appointments, but they don’t supervise what (the school board) does.”

Slover said the board would be happy to seek clarification from the state ethics commission about the issue.

Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said the board did not historically interview appointees to the county boards and commissions, but instead took nominations and voted without meeting the candidates.

“In the last few years, we decided to try to appoint someone we thought would be a good, effective person to a board,” he said. “The best way to do that is with an interview.”

Supervisors Vice President Mike Lazarus said he preferred to have the interviews in closed session, but had no problem with keeping them open if that was what the ethics commission instructed.

“People are more free to say what they want to say without a bunch of people standing behind them,” he said. “With the tension we’ve had (concerning the school district) this summer, I think if it had been open we would have had a crowd, and we don’t need a crowd for this kind of atmosphere.”