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Some quasi-governmental groups not covered by Miss. sunshine laws

Just because an organization "looks" like it's a public agency, it may not be.

And if it isn't a public agency, it's not obligated to be open in any way. That's the way Mississippi's laws read as they address issues of open meetings and open records.

What kind of agencies are we talking about?

 Nonprofit community action agencies.

 Nonprofit community development foundations.

 County councils of government.

 Multistate or regional bodies.

 Public and private hospital boards and committees.

 Law enforcement officials.

 Public community college and university foundations.

Those are just a few types of organizations that look "public" but are not.

In Lee County, where Tupelo is the county seat, the Community Development Foundation and its associated Council of Governments get public attention and make public impacts, operating outside the view of the general public.

The CDF is widely heralded as a major player in the region's landing Toyota Motor Corp., which is building a manufacturing plant northwest of Tupelo. CDF has 1,100 members and some of its officers are elected officials.

But CDF's business doesn't belong to the public, even though its impact does. It's a nonprofit membership organization. If you want to know CDF's inner workings, you can't, except for public pronouncements and internally produced publications.

Lee County's Council of Governments, a child of CDF, works much the same way although it is less formally organized. Mayors and other officials from the county and its municipalities meet regularly to discuss significant issues of common interest, such as zoning or housing or law enforcement.

Organizations like this can do a lot of good, their members say, despite and because of their closed doors.

"CDF is set up to protect client confidentiality," said David Rumbarger, CDF's chief executive officer. "We don't spend public money that hasn't already gone through the public process."

He means the public money CDF receives was discussed and vetted at public meetings of local city councils or the Board of Supervisors.

Elected officials are ex-officio members of CDF's board of directors and have a voice in its decision-making, Rumbarger explained.

Officially, its legal footings lie in its nonprofit corporation status through the Mississippi secretary of state's office.

Organized in 1948, CDF has had plenty of time to respond to any criticism about its operating structure.

"If this could be done publicly, they would have made a different decision in 1948," he noted.

Its success comes from a quasi-public flexibility to act, in some cases with speed, when more cumbersome public entities may be mired in controversy, Rumbarger added.

One example he cited was the years-ago development of a regional water system, which raised such a public furor that the various entities affected by the plan asked CDF to take the reins, promote the necessary legislation and develop a mechanism to make it work. That's what happened and it's pretty much history at this point.

CDF can hold meetings, decide how to spend resources and map strategy without public intrusion, because it is not under Mississippi's Open Meetings law.

The Lee County Council of Governments, established in 1969, regularly provides a forum where municipal and county elected officials can meet and discuss common problems. While it doesn't have the authority to make public decisions, its members go back home, hold their public meetings and make decisions based on their experiences at the Council of Governments sessions.

Because COG is outside the jurisdiction of Mississippi's Open Meetings law, it's not open to the public.

"I'd rather not speak on why it's structured the way it is, but my experience with the Council of Governments has been good," said Verona Mayor Bobby Williams, the immediate past chairman of Lee COG.

Williams described their meetings as very helpful.

Public hospitals and their governing boards also are exempt from public meetings. Yet things are different in Natchez.

Walter Brown, the board attorney for the county-owned Natchez Regional Medical Center, said the board's meetings are always open to the public.

When trustees don't want the public to know something, they just go into executive session, for example on topics that might tip off competitors.

"A good deal of the work, like dealing with competing salaries, has to be in executive session," Brown said.

And Brown says he believes in open meetings.

"I think for lots of reasons meetings should be open," he said. "If I tell you what's going on, there will be an informed electorate."

But none of this openness has attracted much interest from Natchez citizens, he said. Very rarely do any members of the public attend the meetings.

And if you're wondering about those millions of dollars raised each year by Mississippi's public university and community college nonprofit foundations, don't wonder. They're not required to tell you much of anything, especially who their donors are and what they're doing with the money.

They are governed by bylaws and boards of directors, and can pretty much do what they want. They may bear the names of their public institutions, but they aren't public at all.

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