State Auditor Stacey Pickering held a meeting with four of Diamondhead’s five City Council members Tuesday that Mayor Tommy Schaefer said was illegal.
Schaefer called it a “blatant violation” of the state’s open-meetings law.
The council members had requested a meeting with Pickering, which took place the day before the Office of the State Auditor publicly released its performance audit review of the city. The review covers such topics as finances and separation of powers, and other aspects of the city’s governance.
The meeting began about 10 a.m. at City Hall and lasted about an hour. No public notice was issued, and no invitation was extended to Councilwoman Nancy Depreo. Schaefer also was not invited.
“I think it was an illegal meeting,” Schaefer said. “I’m also aware they planned it in advance.”
Councilman-at-large Ernie Knobloch said they did plan the meeting but originally intended to have only two councilmen at a time meet with Pickering to avoid having a quorum, which would make it an official public meeting.
“That was our plan,” Knobloch said.
Knobloch did not say why the councilmen didn’t want the meeting to be public.
The plan changed when Pickering arrived Tuesday morning and told the councilmen he’d checked with his office’s attorney and learned it would be OK for all of them to assemble for an “informational meeting,” Knobloch said.
“What do you say to something like that?” he said. “The only reason that it occurred that way is because the state auditor said, ‘Our attorney said it’s OK to meet with you in an informational meeting.’”
However, nowhere in the exemptions of the state’s Open Meetings Act do informational meetings or informational sessions appear. In fact, in the 1985 case Board of Trustees v. Mississippi Publishers Corp., the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled “information gathering” and “fact-finding” sessions are subject to the Open Meetings Act.
“All I’m saying is here we have the person who’s in charge of the auditing office saying this is OK,” Knobloch said. “So we did what he suggested.”
Pickering has not responded to requests for comment.
Depreo, the councilwoman who was not invited to the meeting, said she was unaware the meeting had been planned and believes the state’s Ethics Commission should be notified.
“Clarification of the Open Meetings Act in regards to this meeting needs to be reviewed by the Mississippi Ethics Commission,” she said.
When the mayor learned of the meeting Tuesday morning, he entered and voiced his concerns over its legality. As soon as he did that, Pickering responded, telling him to take it up with the Ethics Commission, Schaefer said.
“I went in and said, ‘Guys, I think we have a problem here,’” Schaefer said. “Pickering told me, ‘Mr. Mayor, this is not an illegal meeting, and if you have a problem with it, you can call my office or file a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission.’ So I turned around and left.”