Rupert Howell column

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 7, 2011

Closed meeting gives unintended civics lesson

Oxford Boy Scout Jonathan Harwood is working on a merit badge that required him to go to a public meeting. He wound up at the Sardis City Board meeting last Tuesday.

Sardis holds their regular meeting the first Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

Jonathan heard usual “house cleaning” type business such as approval of claims and minutes and such.

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As tradition has it, the meeting was opened and the first matter of business was prayer, and Pledge of Allegiance. About half way through the first line, “I pledge allegience to the . . .” heads started turning when everyone noticed we were pledging allegiance to the flag of Sardis and the State of Mississippi. There was no American flag in sight.

Mayor Rusty Dye apologized.

Later during the meeting Dye called Jonathan up to sit at the table beside him and with the three other elected officials present.

When asked did he have any questions, Jonathan explained that he was waiting on something controversial to come up so he could ask each side the advantages of their position. But the board agreed and every action was unanimous.

Mayor Dye said that all the issues on the agenda had been discussed many times prior and that not every decision made by them was always unanimous.

Former city alderwoman Polly Gordon spoke from the gallery saying she could tell Jonathan something that might be controversial.

She then spoke of a burn ordinance on the books and said people are burning leaves all over town.

Alderman Jojo Still said he knew of no burn ordinance and stated, “I’ve seen people burn leaves here all my life.”

City attorney Tommy Shuler offered clarification.

“We have an ordinance against piling leaves in the street,” he said.

“I know it (a burn ordinance) was on there (in the minute books) unless somebody that didn’t know what they were doing went in there and took it off,” Gordon said.

“I didn’t know it. I was the one doing the burning,” Alderman Still said in an apologetic manner.

“I know it was an ordinance because I was there,” Gordon said referring to her time served in the 1980s on the city’s board.

If a resolution was reached concerning whether or not there is a burn ordinance in Sardis, it wasn’t revealed to Jonathan, or me.

The board later went into their regular executive session to discuss “possible litigation involving personnel.”

Jonathan, whether he knows it or not, was locked out of the meeting along with this reporter and anybody else who was interested.

Having covered public meetings for more than three and a half decades, I know some boards that have gone for years without having to go into a closed door session. Other boards, such as the City of Sardis, routinely close doors at the end of meeting to discuss matters they claim fall under executive privilege rule.

It’s not about Jonathan and it’s not about me. It’s about the governed. It’s about the thousands of readers, most of them citizens, who read and subscribe to the two newspapers I represent. The citizens are also shut out.

Although the law explicitly defines what is and isn’t a legal reason for a “closed door meeting,” the act of routinely closing the public out at the end of every meeting breeds suspicion and doubt that the business of the public is being done in private.

It’s not the American way. I don’t want to believe it’s the way of Mississippi or Sardis, to whose flags I pledged allegiance, either.

That’s the reality of the public meeting you attended, Jonathan.