By NATHAN GREGORY
The Mississippi Ethics Commission filed a preliminary report and recommendation stating the city of Starkville violated three sections of state code in failing to keep minutes for public meetings, provide proper notice of meetings and strictly comply with the Open Meetings Act.
The report is preliminary, not official. It is not known when a final order will be filed.
Miss. Section 25-41-5 states all official meetings of any public body shall be open to the public at all times. Section 25-41-11 states minutes of legislative committee meetings should consist of a written record of attendance and any final action taken. Section 25-41-13 states, “Any public body which holds its meetings at such times and places and by such procedures as are specifically prescribed by statute shall continue to do so and no additional notice of such meetings shall be required except that a notice of the place, date, hour and subject matter of any recess meeting, adjourned meeting, interim meeting or any called special meeting shall be posted within one hour after such meeting is called in a prominent place available to examination and inspection by the general public in the building in which the public body normally meets.”
In the report, MEC Executive Director and Hearing Officer Tom Hood recommended the commission should find the city in violation of those codes and order the board of aldermen and its committees to “refrain from further violations and comply strictly with Sections 25-41-5, 25-41-11 and 25-41-13.”
The report is a response to a complaint to MEC filed by Starkville resident William McGovern in July alleging the city violated state code by not taking minutes of the board of aldermen’s January retreat as well as other board committee meetings.
City Attorney Chris Latimer followed with a response stating the city committed no such violation because no action was taken at the retreat or other meetings. The city also did not willfully and knowingly keep such meetings secret because local media was notified in advance of the retreat and a special planning session for the city’s Capital Improvements Program in May, Latimer stated.
Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman stated in an affidavit to MEC that while advance announcements for each of the city’s 22 committees consisting of board of aldermen members were not provided, nor minutes kept for those committees’ meetings, those meetings were open to the public and there was no attempt to hide any of them. He added, “… it is important to me that the City of Starkville sets the standard for open government. I welcome input from the Ethics Commission as to how we can improve our protocol with respect to meetings of City committees.”
Along with filing the objection to MEC, McGovern filed an objection to Oktibbeha County Chancery Court after the board of aldermen passed a measure to allow for the use of certificates of participation bonds as a means of funding a new city hall facility to be located at the former site of the Starkville Electric Department. A hearing regarding the objection was held Nov. 1 in front of 14th Chancery District Judge Jim Davidson Jr. Davidson has no more than 60 days from Nov. 10, the deadline for representatives of McGovern and Starkville had to submit closing arguments regarding the case, before he must render a decision.
Wiseman declined to comment on the MEC’s preliminary findings, saying he felt speaking about a document that might change before it reaches its final form would not be prudent, and he would be willing to comment when a final opinion and order is handed down. He did confirm the city did not exercise its option to file an objection by Nov. 12 to the preliminary findings.
Calls to Latimer were not returned as of press time.