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Mississippi Ethics Commission rules in city’s favor in two separate complaints

 

NATCHEZ — The Mississippi Ethics Commission has dismissed two ethics complaints filed against the City of Natchez by private citizens.

One of the dismissed complaints, filed by J.T. Robinson, claimed the city violated the Open Meetings Act by not allowing him the “right to speak at public hearings such as board meetings.”

The other dismissed complaint, filed by Louisiana Attorney and Natchez resident Paul Benoist, claimed the city violated the Open Meetings Act:

  • By failing to approve and index its meeting minutes in a timely manner;
  • By taking official action, in regard to allowing a circus to perform in the Natchez City Auditorium without holding a meeting;
  • By having “thin and routinely misleading” agendas; and
  • By “illicitly discussing non-executive business in executive session.”

The ethics commission dismissed Robinson’s complaint on March 8 and Benoist’s complaint on June 12.

In his complaint, Robinson said the city did not allow him to speak at a city meeting in July 2018, and he was “told by the city’s attorney and mayor to wait a month.”

Robinson said he requested to be placed on the August agenda and was denied again.

“The city requires a resident to give a written reason before he can be placed on the agenda,” Robinson’s complaint states. “If you give a reason that the city attorney, mayor or the mayor’s assistant does not approve, they can and have stopped the process. … I feel I have followed procedures but am continuously denied the right to speak at public meetings.”

The city’s response noted that Robinson had lost a lawsuit he filed against the city in an “attempt to require the City of Natchez to perform restoration work,” and after the suit Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell had several meetings with Robinson.

The city also said Robinson had been allowed to address the board at its meetings numerous times and provided evidence that Robinson had addressed the board at its Feb. 27, 2018, meeting.

“The city states that Mr. Robinson was denied permission to address the board only once — on July 9, 2018, a request he made a day before the city’s regular meeting,” states the order of dismissal written by Tom Hood, executive director and chief counsel of the Mississippi Ethics Commission.

In the conclusion, Hood states: “Any public body may make and enforce reasonable rules and regulations for the conduct of persons attending its meetings. … A public body may, but is not required to, allow members of the public to address the public body during a public meeting. … While public bodies are encouraged to allow for public comment in their meetings, the board did not violate the Open Meetings Act by denying Mr. Robinson’s request to speak at the meeting.”

Grennell said he had met with Robinson several times and had allowed Robinson to speak at board meetings, but the request to be included on the agenda for the meeting in question came too late and the agenda was already too full.

“I asked him if he could wait for the next meeting to make his presentation,” Grennell said, adding the meetings can sometimes go on for “hours and hours. I’ve always tried to accommodate J.T. I don’t try to block anybody from making a presentation before the board. We just make it as time efficient as possible.”

Benoist’s complaint was dismissed on all counts:

  • Benoist claimed the city had taken official action to allow a circus to perform in the Natchez City Auditorium without holding a meeting after the board had voted in a prior meeting not to allow the circus to perform in the Auditorium.

“The city leased the auditorium to a third-party, who scheduled a circus on Feb. 2, 2018,” the order of dismissal states. “Prior to the Jan. 12, 2018, meeting, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals contacted the city’s mayor regarding the circus. …” and the board passed a motion in the meeting directing the city attorney to contact the lessor and tell them “they were not to have a circus on the city property or in the city auditorium.”

Benoist submitted news articles to the ethics commission showing the circus performed in the city auditorium on Feb. 2, 2018, despite the city’s vote to deny the circus, the order states.

“He concludes that since the circus continued as scheduled on Feb. 2, 2018, the board must have taken official action to allow the circus without holding a meeting,” the dismissal states. “… From evidence reviewed in this case it appears that the city attorney acted as directed by the board. However, it is not clear that the board had a legal authority to stop the circus from performing as scheduled, as the city had leased the building to a third-party, who had in turn leased the building to the circus. Accordingly, there is insufficient evidence to show that the board took official action without holding a meeting to allow the circus to continue.”

  • Benoist claimed the city does not properly maintain the city’s minutes.

“The Mississippi Ethics Commission does not have jurisdiction over these matters and, therefore, the complaint pertaining to these matters should be dismissed,” the complaint states.

  • Benoist claimed the city does not provide adequate agendas and that the agendas are not consistently posted on the city’s website, “such that they do not comply with the Act’s notice requirements,” and that the city frequently acts on issues that were not included on the agendas.

“The Open Meetings Act does not require that a public body’s agenda be in any particular form,” the order states. “Section 25-41-5 only requires that an agenda and materials that will be distributed to members of the public body and that have been made available to the staff of the public body in sufficient time for duplication and forwarding to members of the public body shall be made available to the public at the time of the meeting.

“The Act also does not restrict a public body to action only on matters that have been included on the meeting agenda. … Additionally the Open Meetings Act does not require a municipality such as Natchez to post notices, agendas or minutes online.”

  • Benoist claimed the city routinely and improperly takes up matters in executive session.

“Finally, no actual evidence was provided by the complainant to establish” whether this occurred, Hood writes in the dismissal order.

Benoist said he has Mississippi attorneys considering options.

“The failure of the city to perform basic governmental functions like maintenance of minute books is inexcusable and makes the argument for OneBoard,” said Benoist, who established an organization known as OneBoard in an effort to garner support for abolishing the city of Natchez.

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