Four city council members violated state law when they met behind closed doors with State Auditor Stacey Pickering earlier this year, according to a preliminary ruling issued by the Mississippi Ethics Commission on Friday.
Ethics Commission Hearing Officer Chris Graham issued the ruling, finding the Diamondhead City Council “violated” the Open Meetings Act when four of the five council members met with Pickering on Jan. 31 and “discussed a matter over which the city council has authority without providing public access, providing notice, or recording minutes.”
The Commission gigged the council on a fundamental rule of the Open Meetings Act — a meeting becomes official and public as soon as a quorum is established.
A quorum is defined as a simple majority of a board’s members. So, as soon as at least three of the council members intentionally assembled in City Hall at the same time, a quorum was formed, rendering it an official meeting open to the public.
Councilman Ernie Knobloch said he and the three other councilmen held the meeting only because the State Auditor told them it was legal to do so.
“The thing is, we should not have taken the legal advice of the State Auditor,” Knobloch said.
The meeting in January was a point of contention for Mayor Tommy Schaefer and Councilwoman Nancy Depreo, both of whom were excluded from it. At the time, Schaefer called it an “illegal meeting” and a “blatant violation” of state law.
The council members had requested a meeting with Pickering to discuss a recent performance audit of the city and a letter Schaefer sent to Pickering’s office in response to the audit. The meeting came just one day before Pickering’s office publicly released the audit findings. It was held at City Hall and lasted about an hour.
Schaefer had found out about the meeting as it was happening and went into the conference room to try to stop it because he said he knew it was against the law. But as soon as he expressed his concerns, Pickering told him to take it up with the Ethics Commission, the mayor said. Depreo later filed the complaint with the Ethics Commission.
The four councilmen responded, telling the Commission they originally planned to meet with the State Auditor in groups of two to avoid having a quorum. However, the Commission has previously ruled such a method, dubbed a “rolling quorum,” also violates the Open Meetings Act.
Pickering responded to inquiries from the Sun Herald shortly after that meeting and said the Open Meetings Act did not apply to him. His office has not responded to requests for comment on the Ethics Commission’s ruling.
Diamondhead City Council attorney Sean Tindell said the situation is “unfortunate” because the council members did not want to hold such a meeting.
“But what do you do when the auditor tells you his attorneys said it was OK?” Tindell said.
The four council members took Pickering at his word and did not think to check with their own legal counsel before the meeting, Knobloch said.
The Ethics Commission ordered the Diamondhead council to refrain from further violations but did not issue any fines.
Schaefer said he was pleased the Ethics Commission vindicated his initial allegation but also disappointed that only a warning was issued.