John Howell Sr. editorial – 10/9/2015

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 8, 2015

John Howell Sr.

Closed session rains on Nat’l Newspaper Week parade

Whoooeee. Here it is National Newspaper Week — when most of our cohorts in this community newspaper publishing business are waxing eloquent about open meetings and public records and sunshine laws and conducting public business out in the open and being transparent— and how do our city’s leaders spend almost two hours of a five hour meeting?

Behind closed doors.

To be fair, there were four separate items that were discussed Tuesday — three personnel matters and a matter of land acquisition — according to assistant City Attorney Colmon Mitchell, who after the meeting was reopened for adjournment, provided a report of actions taken.

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And according to Mississippi’s Open Meetings Law, certain personnel matters and land acquisitions can be discussed behind closed doors.

For instance, if Alderman A believes that Job Applicant Joe is a nincompoop, he can come right out and say it in front of his fellow elected officials during executive session without fear of finding himself quoted in this rag.

So in the interest of preserving their right to audibly warn their fellows away from hiring nincompoops, deviants, swindlers and the like, city officials have adopted a policy, albeit unofficial, of routinely invoking executive session every time they consider an applicant for employment. Period.

Which seems a bit heavy-handed in view of the language of Mississippi’s Open Meetings Law that states, “nothing is this section shall be construed to require that any meeting be closed…”
In other words, closing a meeting to the public only occasionally optional but  never mandatory.
Not that I wasted two hours. I sat in the lobby with my friend, Debra Jones whom I have dubbed “First Citizen.” She faithfully attends meetings of the mayor and aldermen just because she wants to know what’s going on in local government and even sits out most executive sessions with me until the meetings reopen.

(James “Whiz” Whitaker is another regular attendee at meetings of city government, but he heads toward the exit when executive session is mentioned, so I’ve dubbed him “Second Citizen.)

Debra and I exchanged small talk. I learned about the failure of her husband’s sorghum crop, likely due to lack of rain.

Debra and her husband retired to Batesville after long careers in Michigan. Each year he returns to his family’s farm near their native Coffeeville where he plants a two-acre garden, including sorghum. Most years he and his brother have been able to cut their sorghum, press out the sweet juice from the stalks and cook it into sorghum molasses. Not so this year.
We could overhear animated discussion from behind those closed doors — not angry voices, just the enthusiasm of several trying to speak at once. I told Debra that if I moved closer to the door I could probably hear the discussion better. (And I thought to myself that if I put my ear next to the door, I could hear even better, but then what if someone opened it suddenly from the inside and I went falling into the room? How embarrassing! )

Attorney Mitchell reported afterwards that Jamie Caldwell was hired as administrative assistant at the Batesville Civic Center to fill the position now held by Linda Floyd, who will retire in June.
Fire Chief Tim Taylor brought a fire department personnel matter to the city officials. No action was taken, the attorney said.

City Engineer Blake Mendrop discussed with the mayor and aldermen the possibility and/or need for the purchase of land. Alderman Bill Dugger recused himself during that discussion. Alderman Teddy Morrow was authorized to begin negotiations with the landowner, according to Mitchell.

Then Police Chief Tony Jones reported on a personnel matter in the police department, a matter since reported to us by several sources as “pretty volatile.” The city will provide notice for a disciplinary hearing, Mitchell said.

That’s it. After almost two hours.
The irony is that I respect these elected officials and their attorney for their integrity and work ethic. I’ve watched them month-in and month-out for years.

I have become convinced that when they sit around that meeting table they work together to put the public’s interest first. On occasions when anyone has appeared to stray into an issue that may be perceived as self-serving, his fellows have diplomatically redirected him back toward that public interest.

But by spending more and more of public meeting time behind closed doors as they have increasingly during recent months’ meetings, they run the risk of casting a shadow over themselves and their work.

It’s that old slippery slope.

And when they do it, we’re going to grumble about it.

Especially during National Newspaper Week.