- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

GREENWOOD, Miss. (AP) - Legislation proposed by a Montgomery County lawmaker is being criticized by open meeting advocates who say the proposals would redefine a public meeting, making it easier for government bodies to conduct business in private.

State Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, R-Winona, is proposing two bills to limit the provisions of the Open Meetings Act to government meetings where a quorum is present.

Government transparency advocates say the proposed changes would undermine important provisions of the act and make it easier for government bodies to avoid public scrutiny.

Will Bardwell, a Jackson attorney and president of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, told The Greenwood Commonwealth that the altered language would allow boards to hold a series of small meetings where all members of the board are included but during which a quorum is never present at any one time.

“All deliberations regarding public policy are supposed to take place publicly. I don’t know why Sen. Chassaniol thinks that’s such a bad thing,” Bardwell said.

The Commonwealth reports Chassaniol did not respond to requests for comment.

Tom Hood, the executive director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, said the commission and the state’s courts have repeatedly deemed such “rolling quorums” illegal under the state’s sunshine laws.

Chassaniol’s bills, Hood said, would make it far easier for boards to hold critical discussions or debate public policy without giving members of the public and reporters a chance to be present.

Charlie Mitchell, a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, said the bills are targeted at the Ethics Commission’s last three rulings which faulted the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors, the mayor and board of aldermen of Yazoo City, and the Columbus City Council for splitting meetings into groups of less than a quorum to avoid letting the public in.

“The timing of it indicates it is clearly a response to the Ethic Commission’s rulings,”?Mitchell said. “The commission says that that’s not what the law means, so the senator apparently wants to change the law.”

Hood said chance encounters and discussions between public officials is permissible under the Open Meetings Act, but that intentionally setting up small meetings to avoid a quorum - as Chassaniol’s bills would allow - could exclude the public from key discussions.

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Online: Senate Bill 2352 (http://bit.ly/1zwOqAf ); Senate Bill 2489 (http://bit.ly/1zwOvUO )

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Information from: The Greenwood Commonwealth, http://www.gwcommonwealth.com

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