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Mississippi Supreme Court rules in favor of transparency in open meetings

TOP COURT: The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled 9-0 against the city of Columbus in a case concerning open meetings. Photo by the state of Mississippi

It was the first time that the court had addressed a case where a governmental body tried to circumvent the state's Open Meetings Act by way of what is called a "rolling quorum."

The city of Columbus was accused in 2014 of violating the state's opening meetings law by holding several prearranged, sub-quorum meetings to discuss several economic development projects. The meetings were not announced and were not open to the public.

The Mississippi Justice Institute represented the Columbus Dispatch and its former reporter, Nathan Gregory, in the case and was assisted by Clay Baldwin of the Baldwin Law Firm in Madison.

Institute Director Mike Hurst told the Mississippi Independent that the decision could help put a stop to similar attempts to get around the Open Meetings Act.

"That's the hope and that was a central argument in our briefs," Hurst said. "This is a walking, a rolling or a piecemeal quorum scenario where they're trying to avoid the (Open Meetings) Act. My interpretation of the court's opinion is that now against the law. I'm hoping this sends a message to these other public bodies that you can't circumvent the law without violating the law."

The court said in the ruling that "prearranged, nonsocial gatherings on public business that are held in sub-quorum groups with the intent to circumvent the Act are required to be open to the public under Section 25-41-1 of the Open Meetings Act."

The Mississippi Ethics Commission originally ruled against the city of Columbus, but the municipality appealed in Lowndes County Chancery Court, which upheld the Commission’s decision. The city later took that decision to the state supreme court.

Hurst also said the city of Columbus won't face any legal penalties since the Mississippi Legislature hasn't fortified the Open Meetings Act with any penalties for violating it.

Peter Imes, general manager of the Columbus Dispatch, said in a news release that the decision was a win for open government.

"The public should have access to its government’s decision-making process, and this ruling upholds that idea," Imes said.

The institute is also representing a Meridian man in a similar case against the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors.

Thursday might've marked a new day for transparency in Mississippi after an unanimous landmark ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court.

The court ruled 9-0 against the city of Columbus in a case concerning the state's Open Meetings Act and whether the law applied to governmental bodies conducting public business without a quorum of members present.

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