Executive sessions, once rare, have now become routine
We live in the era of ever-increasing lip service to transparency in government while lawmakers at all levels continually chip away at the public’s right to access information about their government. Nobody ever got themselves elected on a platform of keeping the public away from the public’s business, but once elected, many public officials start to shield themselves behind closed doors.
At the local levels where we traffic in information, the shroud usually comes as an executive session about a “personnel matter.” The municipalities whose governments we habitually try to cover all vote, almost routinely, to enter executive sessions to discuss personnel matters.
Indeed, personnel matters are among those exceptions which the Mississippi Open Meeting Act allows to be discussed behind closed doors. Within limits;
“Transaction of business and discussion of personnel matters relating to the job performance, character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of a person holding a specific position,” according to the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, are the limits of personnel matters that may be discussed privately among themselves by elected officials.
Further, the Mississippi Open Meetings Act states:
“Nothing in this section shall be construed to require that any meeting be closed to the public, nor shall any executive session be used to circumvent or to defeat the purposes of this chapter. (Emphasis ours.)
Therein lies the rub. Once the public is ushered from the meeting room and the doors closed behind them, the relaxed atmosphere is conducive for the conversation to drift from the specific reason for the executive session into a one-thing-leads-to-another discussion of a variety of subjects that the elected officials might not want to air in public. Not that the elected officials plan it that way, but once the doors are closed, it becomes hard not to yield to human nature.
Use of executive session was once so infrequent among the public officials whose meetings we report that on the rare occasions when it happened, they had to ask the board attorney to refresh their memories about how it’s done.
No more. Executive sessions have become a routine agenda item. It is the newspaper’s job to notice.