Hancock County

Diamondhead councilmen appeal state Ethics Commission ruling

The Mississippi Ethics Commission has ruled the state auditor should not have attended a private meeting with four Diamondhead city councilmen on Jan. 31 at City Hall.
The Mississippi Ethics Commission has ruled the state auditor should not have attended a private meeting with four Diamondhead city councilmen on Jan. 31 at City Hall. wmuller@sunherald.com File

The City Council on Tuesday was set to consider appealing a recent ruling by the Mississippi Ethics Commission until residents spoke out against it.

The agenda for the meeting contained a measure that would have directed the city attorney to represent the four councilmen in an appeal of the ruling. Ethics Commission Hearing Officer Chris Graham had found four councilmen, Tom Sislow, Ernie Knobloch, Tom Woolbright and Ron Rech, “violated” the Open Meetings Act when they met with State Auditor Stacey Pickering on Jan. 31.

Councilwoman Nancy Depreo and Mayor Thomas Schaefer were excluded from the meeting, which was held at City Hall.

Several residents expressed anger and frustration that the four councilmen would try to use taxpayer money to defend an act that violated the rights of the residents. Pete Yanez sternly told the four councilmen to drop the matter before they’re embarrassed even further or hit with a fine. The Ethics Commission can levy fines of $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for a second.

In response, the council took the item off the agenda.

Some residents remained suspicious of the councilmen’s motives, including Dennis Charpentier, who said, “Does that mean they’re going to go behind our backs and do it?”

Just 12 hours later, Councilman Tom Sislow filed an appeal at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. He elected to represent himself instead of using the city attorney.

“Ernie, Ron and Tom (Woolbright) were not for having this paid for by the city,” Sislow said. “I said I would do it on my own.”

Sislow maintains the meeting in question was requested by the auditor so they could give him their response to a letter the mayor wrote regarding the city’s recent performance audit. He pointed out the mayor and Depreo had gone to Jackson to meet with Pickering and deliver the letter.

Though Sislow said Pickering called for the meeting, Knobloch previously said it was the councilmen who asked Pickering to come to Diamondhead. The following day was the date on which the city’s official audit report would be released to the public.

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

Sislow characterized the meeting with Pickering as an “exchange of information” and said it was the same as going to a Mississippi Municipal League conference.

However, the information they gave Pickering, in a thick binder they had compiled, was voted on and spread on the minutes at a Feb. 7 council meeting. Any information-gathering sessions are still considered official public meetings if the council could potentially take official action on that information at a later date.

At the Feb. 7 meeting, the mayor abstained from voting, saying he had never before seen the binder and questioned how the four councilmen were able to compile such a large amount of information outside of an official meeting.

Sislow said the January meeting with Pickering “was not meant to be a secret meeting.” However, the councilmen did attempt to meet with Pickering two at a time in order to avoid having a quorum. A quorum, which is defined as majority of a board’s members, makes a meeting official and public.

A date has not yet been set for the appeal hearing.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller