- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A judge says the city of Columbus can’t hold split meetings of its city council to avoid open meetings requirements.

Lowndes County Chancery Judge Kenneth Burns, in a Tuesday ruling, found that city meetings involving three council members and the mayor in 2014 violated Mississippi’s Open Meetings Act.

The judge upheld a prior ruling of the Mississippi Ethics Commission. The city had appealed the ruling to Burns, stating that there were no circumstances in which a private meeting with less than a quorum of officials had to be open.

Columbus has a six-member council, requiring four members to be present for business. Nathan Gregory, then a reporter for The Commercial Dispatch, complained to the Ethics Commission in 2014 after a series of closed meetings to discuss retail development and renovations to a public building. Each time, there were two separate meetings with three council members apiece.

The city had argued in its appeal that a series of prior rulings and legal opinions said it was OK for less than a quorum of a public body to meet. But Burns said Columbus’ practice, with pre-arranged meetings that involved all council members, was deliberately structuring meetings to discuss public business in private.

“Significant to the court is that the city admits that the mayor and other officials met with a quorum of the council on the days in question but divided into groups with less than a quorum of the council so the public could be excluded,” the judge wrote.

Burns quoted a 1985 state Supreme Court case that barred certain closed meetings then being held by the state College Board.

“All the deliberative stages of the decision-making process that lead to ‘formation and determination of public policy’ are required to be open to the public.”

Gregory no longer works for the newspaper, which has asked Burns to take Gregory’s place in the litigation.

“Since filing the original complaint with the Ethics Commission, we have felt these meetings were held in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act,” said Peter Imes, general manager of The Commercial Dispatch. “We’re glad the courts thus far have agreed.”

The city’s lawyer, Jeff Turnage, said he thought the decision muddies the question of what communication, if any, public officials can have outside a public meeting.

“If we follow this ruling to its logical end, the mayor and members of the council will be muzzled between meetings because otherwise they’re in jeopardy of a fine,” Turnage said in a statement. “That cannot be how the Legislature intended the Open Meetings Act to work, and it flies in the face of the plain language of the Open Meetings Act.”

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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