The Newton County Appeal this week filed a complaint on behalf of the citizens of Newton with the Mississippi Ethics Commission against the Board of Aldermen of the City of Newton because of an executive session that we felt like violated the Open Meetings Act.
At the June 16 meeting, the aldermen went into executive session on a “personnel” matter, but they acted on a matter than is not related to personnel at all. After a lengthy discussion in executive session of at least one hour, the board voted to raise its capital improvement fee on water bills by $5, a 264 percent increase of that fee. Overall, minimum water bills are increasing by nearly one-tenth.
The reason we were given for the executive session is that there would have been a reduction in force. It was not indicated how many employees were affected by this. According to the Open Meetings Act, boards are allowed only to discuss specific employees, not the positions. If specific employees were not mentioned by name or discussed individually, then all of the discussion should have happened in open session. We also know there is another exemption that allows board to go into executive session to discuss line items that could affect the termination. However, the board should have only discussed that individual matter in executive session and then reopened session to discuss everything else.
And in this case, the mayor and aldermen did not give the public an opportunity to hear the discussion of why this increase was needed. If the city is facing a budget shortfall, why are the mayor and board members not allowing the public to hear about it?
It isn’t easy discussing difficult issues in the open, but the people deserve to hear about those issues. The mayor and board should not use executive session to discuss the tough issues. The tough issues need to happen in the open.
For quite some time, the Newton Board of Aldermen have added an executive session item on their agenda. On June 16, there was no indication that a fee increase was on the table. It was not listed on the agenda. It was not listed to be discussed in executive session.
If the people of Newton knew that a fee increase was going to be discussed, the public might have asked to be on the agenda and made a statement of why they should look at other options other than a fee increase. However, the public never had that chance.
To all local boards, we ask you to respect the people that you are serving and respect the law. Don’t use executive session to hide difficult discussions. Let it happen in the open. We know that executive sessions are needed at times, but they should be used sparingly and for brief sessions to discuss matters that are allowed under the Open Meetings Act.