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Nuts and bolts: A how-to primer for open meetings in Mississippi

The Mississippi Supreme Court has made it clear that all deliberations of government boards are meant to be aired in public unless specifically exempted.

Personnel matters and pending litigation are exemptions to the state Open Meetings law most often used by public bodies to meet behind closed doors. But the court has ruled that those exemptions are too vague to suffice.

People attending the meeting have the right to stand and object unless board members are more specific about their reasons for closing a meeting, said Gulfport attorney Henry Laird, whose practice includes First Amendment and public access issues.

The proper procedure to close a meeting, according to the Supreme Court:

A member makes a motion to close a meeting to decide whether there should be an executive session. If a majority votes for an executive session, the chairman must reopen the meeting to announce the closed meeting and the reason for it.

"When a board chairman tells a citizen he may not hear the board discuss certain business, he is taking liberties with the rights of that citizen," the Supreme Court has stated, "and the reason given for this interference must be genuine and meaningful, and one the citizen can understand."

The court also explains: "The board should not be required to give the reason for going into executive session in such detail as to defeat the very purpose of going into executive session. At the same time, it must... disclose enough so that the audience can know in fact that there is some specific area (or) matter that the board has wisely concluded should, for the time being, be discussed in private."

A personnel matter to discuss whether to fire a public works employee would qualify as specific reason to close a meeting.

"Litigation" also is too vague a reason, but a City Council would be within its rights to close a meeting for the stated purpose of discussing a lawsuit filed over an accident that involved a city vehicle.

Laird said the other problem most often mentioned with executive sessions is that boards stray outside the specific topic where privacy is permitted.

Boards speak through their minutes and are supposed to record any vote taken in executive session. Residents can check meeting minutes, which are supposed to be available within 30 days, to find out what action was taken in executive sessions.

Laird said the original reason for the executive session would have to be specific enough for residents to find reference to it in the minutes.

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