4 citizens file ethics complaint against Natchez

Published 12:01 am Saturday, April 28, 2018

NATCHEZ — A group of local citizens has filed an ethics violation complaint against the City of Natchez regarding efforts of the city aldermen to hold closed-door reviews of proposals for the city’s new waste and recycling contract.

Natchez attorney Paul D. Sullivan filed the complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission Friday on behalf of four local citizens.

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The citizens listed on the complaint are Dr. John White, 506 S. Union St.; Paul Benoist, 329 Market St.; Ginger Schwager, 7 Club Drive; and William N. Myers, No. 5 N. Raintree St. All live within the Natchez city limits, except Schwager, who resides in Beau Pré subdivision south of Natchez.

Friday’s filing follows two ethics complaints filed by The Natchez Democrat earlier this week — one concerning the city’s claim that the six proposals submitted to the city are not public record and a second complaint similar to Sullivan’s complaint concerning the city’s efforts to discuss the proposals behind closed doors.

“Mississippi has a very strong open meetings law, which is designed to require local governments to be open,” Sullivan said. “While there are a few exceptions (allowed in the Open Meetings Act), the courts very narrowly apply those exceptions.”

None of the exceptions apply to a public body discussing public services, including the discussion of garbage collection services, Sullivan said.

In the complaint filed Friday, Sullivan said the board had already voted to go into executive session and did not provide a statutory exception to the Open Meetings Act to justify the executive session until challenged by the public.

“The board initially announced that it was entitled to go into executive session ‘to protect the city’s ability to negotiate with bidders,’” Sullivan wrote.

When challenged to cite which of the state’s 12 statutory exceptions permitted the executive session, City Attorney Bob Latham cited section (j):”transaction of business and discussions or negotiations regarding the location, relocation or expansion of a business or industry.”

“Clearly, this subsection does not apply to the City of Natchez Board of Aldermen discussing the merits of relative proposals for the provision of garbage collection services,” Sullivan wrote in the complaint. “Discussing the relative merits of six competing proposals for providing garbage collection services is simply not covered by any of the statutory exceptions, and the Board of Aldermen violated the Open Meetings Act by going into executive session.”

In the complaint, Sullivan quoted from previous rulings by the Mississippi Supreme Court involving the Open Meetings Act.

“No doubt there are occasions when board members would speak more frankly on some matter if only the board members were present, and no doubt there are instances in which a board member would personally prefer to speak to only his colleagues. Of far greater importance, however, is that all public business be open to the public,” the court wrote in a 1985 decision involving the Vicksburg mayor and board of aldermen. “Every member of every public board and commission in this state should always bear in mind that the spirit of the Act is that a citizen spectator, including any representative of the press, has just as much right to attend the meeting and see and hear everything that is going on as has any member of the board or commission.”