Hancock County

Bay St. Louis council violated open meetings laws again, ethics commission rules

Old Town Bay St. Louis
Old Town Bay St. Louis Sun Herald file

The Bay St. Louis City Council and Ward 4 Councilman Larry Smith violated open meetings laws in the way they secretly handled business that led to the firing of a member of the Heritage Preservation Commission, says a ruling by the Mississippi Ethics Commission.

Smith tried to circumvent the Public Meetings Act by sending an email to a quorum of council members (four of six members) to influence them to do away with the city’s preservation group, the ruling said.

The council in May had failed to give specific reasons on why it went into an executive session, during which councilmen discussed dissolving the heritage commission.

The council had announced it was going into a closed-door meeting but it did not address why it could not publicly state what the discussion would be about — such as saying that identifying parties involved in possible complaints could be detrimental to possible legal action, according to the ruling.

The council held its executive session, resumed its public meeting and immediately voted to remove Ellis Anderson as a commissioner on the preservation group.

The move blindsided Anderson and supporters of the heritage commission, said Lana Noonan in a complaint she filed with the ethics commission in June. Noonan represents the Hancock County Alliance for Good Government

Several people interested in the heritage commission’s business were at the May 8 meeting. One of them formally polled each councilman, asking if they would be handling any business involving the heritage commission openly or in a closed session. Each councilman said “no,” and Smith said he had “no opinion on HPC.” Some of the commissions supporters left the because they took councilmen at their word.

The ethics commission did not penalize the council or Smith for the violations, but ordered them to “refrain from further violations,” the ruling said.

It’s not the first time the city council has been cited for ethics violations. In 2013, the ethics commission found the council violated the Open Meetings Act by going into executive session to discuss an independent contractor’s job performance.

The council also was warned to avoid a quorum of council members meeting together to discuss city business outside of open public meetings.

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Robin Fitzgerald covers real-time news, such as crime, public safety and trending stories. In nearly 40 years as a journalist, her highest honors include investigative awards for covering the aftermath of the fatal beating of a Harrison County jail inmate in 2006 and related civil rights violations. She is a Troy University graduate.