Lauderdale – 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.
In looking around, he quickly found out that not all of the public’s business performed by local governments are done in public, in the light of day.
Specifically, in this particular case, in early 2013, the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors was considering issuing bonds to cover county improvements. The county administrator reached out to a bond consultant, solicited and received figures relating to a possible bond, and subsequently shared this information with each supervisor separately and individually. A quorum of the Board is three members. On March 22, 2013, District 2 Supervisor Newell and District 4 Supervisor Norwood encountered each other by chance and briefly discussed one of the propose projects. On March 26, 2013, the consultant, 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 and without precluding a future bond issue. 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).
On March 28, 2013, after a Board meeting characterized as a “work session,” the Board President and county administrator met to prepare the agenda for the upcoming regular board meeting scheduled for April 1. The Board President asked the county administrator to “poll” two of the board members, Todd and Norwood, to determine whether they would support a letter of intent to issue bonds in an amount of $14 million. The county administrator asked them, to which they responded by confirming their support, and thereafter the matter was placed on the agenda and the board attorneys were instructed to draft a Resolution of Intent. Subsequently, the county administrator sent a text message to the other two supervisors (Rutledge and Newell) informing them that a $14 million bond issue had been placed on the agenda for April 1. When Rutledge and Newell called the county administrator about this, they were both told separately that the other three supervisors had “decided” that the amount was $14 million.
At the April 1, 2013, Board meeting, the Board adopted by a vote of 3 to 2 the Resolution of Intent to issue $14 million in bonds, with Florey, Norwood, and Todd in favor. Newell and Rutledge voted against the resolution.
Mr. Williams, a non-lawyer, decided he couldn’t take it anymore and subsequently filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission, claiming the Board had violated the Open Meetings Act.
After a hearing on the matter, 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.”
The Ethics Commission ruled this was a violation because the actions involved “pre-arranged meetings between a consultant and members of the board of supervisors whereby a quorum of the board (albeit in separate meetings of less than a quorum) intended to discuss and determined matters squarely within the control and jurisdiction of the board. The central facts of this case are that the board members divided into two separate groups of less than a quorum of the board and conducted separate meetings about the same subject, with the same consultant, on the same day.”
On January 20, 2015, the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors appealed the Mississippi Ethics Commission’s decision to the Lauderdale County Chancery Court, where it is currently pending.
On May 27, 2016, the Mississippi Justice Institute filed a Notice of Appearance with the Court on behalf of Mr. Williams.