This should be a warning to all government officials

State Auditor Stacey Pickering
State Auditor Stacey Pickering AP File

Governments across the Coast, consider Diamondhead’s violation of the Open Meetings Act your fair warning.

Last week, the Mississippi Ethics Commission ruled Diamondhead and State Auditor Stacey Pickering violated the law when four of the city’s five council members met in secret to discuss a performance audit. Councilman Ernie Knobloch said councilmen agreed to the meeting after Pickering told them it was legal.

Diamondhead is a young city, we understand that, and we can excuse this violation. This time. Pickering should have known better. He is in his third term, after all. Now, presumably, he does.

We commend Mayor Tommy Schafer and Councilwoman Nancy Depreo, who were excluded from the meeting, for calling out the infraction.

We know there are those rare times when officials need to discuss matters behind closed doors. The key word is rare. And the meeting in Diamondhead wasn’t one of those times.

Excluding the public from discussions about policy is rarely a good idea. Someone in the audience just might have a helpful idea or insight. In other words, the officials just might learn something from the audience. Of course, they also might have to endure the occasional crank. We believe it would be worth it.

The “we didn’t know any better” excuse is no longer valid. There is a wealth of information out there to guide public officials. The Ethics Commission and the Attorney General’s Office are just a phone call or an email away. The law isn’t that complicated.

As Attorney General Jim Hood says on his web page dedicated to the Open Meetings Laws, “The best protection for public officials is to have a good working knowledge of the laws, and the exceptions that apply.”

We expect officials to err on the side of keeping the residents who pay their salaries and fund their operating budgets in the loop.

We urge residents who care about good government to take advantage of a wealth of knowledge contained in the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information website, mcfoi.org. Don’t be afraid to challenge officials who seem to be a little too secretive. It’s your right.

We agree with the Ethics Commission’s decision not to add any punishment to his decision. And we expect there to be no next time that would merit punishment.

The editorial represents the views of the Sun Herald editorial board. Opinions of columnists and cartoonists are their own.