State auditor responds to Diamondhead mayor’s criticism

State Auditor Stacey Pickering
State Auditor Stacey Pickering AP File

State Auditor Stacey Pickering said the Open Meetings Act does not apply to him, according to a statement he released Monday.

The statement was in response to what Mayor Tommy Schaefer told the Sun Herald last week. He said Pickering had held “an illegal meeting” with four of five Diamondhead councilmen.

Pickering’s statement said:

“On Tuesday, January 31, 2017, the State Auditor met with four Diamondhead council members at city hall. The State Auditor’s purpose for this visit was to provide a copy of a recent performance review of the City of Diamondhead to these members. The mayor and another member had previously received copies of this report. While the Open Meetings Act does not apply to the State Auditor, we are always careful to ensure compliance with the Act when meeting with local officials. An Attorney General’s Opinion ... dated April 4, 2003, addressed a very similar gathering, stating ‘a meeting called by a state or federal economic development agencies whose sole purpose is to disseminate information of available grants and favorable loans for public projects, is not in violation of the Open Meetings Act.’”

Councilman-at-large Ernie Knobloch said Friday the councilmen were the ones who planned the meeting, but they originally intended to have only two councilmen at a time meet with Pickering to avoid having a quorum. A quorum, which is defined as three-fifths of a board’s members, makes a meeting official and public.

Pickering also said, “It is the understanding of our office that this meeting was for the purpose of providing copies of the report and disseminating information relating to the report. No official action was taken in the Auditor’s presence by the board members.”

But the Open Meetings Act defines an official meeting as a gathering of a quorum of the members of a public body at which official acts “may be taken,” and the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1985 ruled that information-gathering sessions are subject to the Open Meetings Act.

Knobloch on Friday said the meeting was held to discuss a letter Schaefer sent to Pickering’s office concerning the audit report.

The 2003 opinion to Sonny Clanton has to do with more than one member of the Calhoun County Board of Supervisors meeting with members from state and federal economic development agencies. It does not address meetings in which a quorum is present.

The opinion states, “The usual nature of these meetings are that they are called by the agencies at locations away from our courthouse, are organized by those agencies and are for the purpose of disseminating information of available grants and favorable loans for public projects.”

Last week’s meeting was held in Diamondhead City Hall, rather than away from Diamondhead at a meeting organized by the Office of the State Auditor.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller