Lauderdale County – Open Meetings Act
After moving back home to Meridian, Tommy Williams began monitoring local government to ensure that his and other citizens’ tax dollars were being spent efficiently. What he found was that not all of the public’s business that should be performed in open meetings was being done in the light of day. His case to try to make Lauderdale County government more transparent lasted five years, eventually resulting in a ruling in Williams’ and MJI’s favor. This case–along with MJI’s open meetings case involving the City of Columbus–cemented the rule that, in Mississippi, government officials cannot meet in small groups just to avoid the requirement that their meeting be open to the public.
The story of the case starts in early 2013 when the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors was considering issuing bonds to cover county improvements. A quorum of the Board is three members. On March 26, 2013, the bond consultant, the county administrator, a board attorney, and supervisors from District 1 (Pres. Florey) and 2 (Newell) met at the offices of the board attorney. The purpose of the meeting was to consider the consultant’s information regarding how much the county could borrow without raising taxes. Later that same day, a separate meeting was arranged for the same purpose in the supervisors’ conference room in the courthouse with the consultant and supervisors from Districts 3 (Todd) and 5 (Rutledge).
Williams subsequently filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission, as the Board had violated the Open Meetings Act with its March 26 meetings.
The Ethics Commission found that Board members Florey, Todd, Rutledge and Newell violated the Open Meetings Act “by holding two separate gatherings with the same consultant discussing a matter over which the Board has authority without providing public access, providing notice or recording minutes.” In other words, the Board was not allowed to hold small meetings for the purpose of avoiding creating a quorum and avoiding the requirements of the Open Meetings Act.
On January 20, 2015, the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors appealed the Mississippi Ethics Commission’s decision to the Lauderdale County Chancery Court. On June 15, 2018, the Board withdrew its appeal. The ruling from the Mississippi Ethics Commission’s was final. The Board of Supervisors violated the Open Meetings Act.
MJI Director Shadrack White and Meridian attorney Stephen Wilson represented Tommy Williams in the case.