Mississippi Justice Institute Represents Newspaper Advocating Government Transparency

Seeks to Uphold Ethics Commission Decision on Appeal Finding City of Columbus Violated Open Meetings Act

(COLUMBUS, MISS—MAY 23) – The Mississippi Justice Institute is now representing the Commercial Dispatch, a Columbus newspaper, in an appeal involving Mississippi’s Open Meetings Act. The Mississippi Ethics Commission ruled the mayor and city council of Columbus violated the Open Meetings Act in a complaint filed by a now-former Commercial Dispatch reporter. The mayor and city council appealed the decision to the Lowndes County Chancery Court.

In 2014, the Columbus mayor scheduled multiple meetings with council members, which were not announced or open to the public, to discuss policy issues and determine matters involving economic development projects and renovation of city property. At the time, the mayor excluded a Commercial Dispatch reporter from some of these meetings. The Ethics Commission held that the mayor and council circumvented and violated the Open Meetings Act when they “divided into two groups and conducted meetings involving less than a quorum of the council [where] [t]hese meetings were pre-arranged and, while conducted separately, involved the same subject-matter [and] . . . included deliberations by the council members concerning matters specifically under the jurisdiction of the council.” The Ethics Commission did not levy fines against the mayor or council, but instructed the mayor and council to refrain from further violations and to comply strictly with the Act.

This case is one of only two cases ever appealed from the Ethics Commission to a Chancery Court involving the Open Meetings Act. (It is a separate case from the Ethics Commission’s decision last week to fine Columbus’s mayor $500 for violating the Open Meetings Act in a more recent matter.) The Chancery Court denied a request by the Ethics Commission to intervene in the appeal.

Peter Imes, general manager of the Commercial Dispatch said, “Ensuring government openness is one of our core duties as a newspaper. Since the state ethics commission is not able to participate in the city’s appeal, we appreciate the Mississippi Justice Institute’s efforts to help provide a counter-argument to the city.”

“This is an important case in upholding our laws and holding government accountable through transparency,” said Mike Hurst, counsel for the newspaper and Director of the Mississippi Justice Institute. “Our government leaders should not be circumventing the law, shutting people out, deliberating and determining matters in back rooms, and keeping citizens in the dark as they conduct the people’s business. Sunlight is one of the best disinfectants by which we plan to clean up our government.”

Hurst noted the Mississippi Justice Institute has filed a motion to substitute the Commercial Dispatch in the appeal for its now-former reporter, who originally filed the complaint under his name but no longer works for the newspaper.

The Mississippi Justice Institute represents Mississippians whose state or federal Constitutional rights have been threatened or violated by government actions. It is the legal division of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.

Forest Thigpen, president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, said, “We believe the legitimate power of government is derived from the consent of the governed. Operating behind closed doors prevents citizens from knowing what their government is doing. Whether citizens agree or disagree, they are unable to give or withhold consent when they’re kept in the dark.”

5/23/16