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Mayor and City Council and City of Columbus v. Commercial Dispatch

Supreme Court of Mississippi

September 7, 2017

MAYOR AND CITY COUNCIL AND CITY OF COLUMBUS
v.
THE COMMERCIAL DISPATCH

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 05/24/2016

         LOWNDES COUNTY CHANCERY COURT, HON. KENNETH M. BURNS JUDGE

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: DAVID MICHAEL HURST, JR. JEFFREY JOHNSON TURNAGE MICHAEL D. CHASE CHRISTOPHER THOMAS GRAHAM

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: MICHAEL D. CHASE JEFFREY J. TURNAGE

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: D. MICHAEL HURST, JR. CLAY B. BALDWIN

          BEFORE DICKINSON, P.J., KING AND CHAMBERLIN, JJ.

          CHAMBERLIN, JUSTICE

         ¶1. The Mayor and the City Council members for the City of Columbus held four pairs of prearranged, nonsocial and subquorum gatherings over the course of two months. The gatherings were on the topics of economic development and maintenance of a public building. For each pair of gatherings, the Mayor first met with three Council members, and then later the same day, he met with the remaining three Council members on the same topic. Because all of the gatherings were just shy of a quorum-four Council members would have constituted a quorum-the gatherings were not open to the public.

         ¶2. A reporter for The Commercial Dispatch received notice of the meetings, and he filed an Open Meetings Act Complaint against the Mayor and the City of Columbus. The Ethics Commission found that the Mayor and the City of Columbus had violated the Open Meetings Act. The Mayor and the City of Columbus appealed to the chancery court. The chancery court affirmed the Commission's judgment on de novo review. The Mayor and the City of Columbus appealed to this Court. We affirm the judgment of the chancery court.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶3. The City of Columbus's governing body consists of six City Council members and the Mayor. The Mayor does not always vote; he votes only when the quorum's vote results in a tie. The Mayor and the Council members held four pairs of gatherings over the course of two months that were not open to the public. All of the gatherings were prearranged and took place in the Mayor's conference room.

         ¶4. The first three pairs of gatherings occurred on January 23, 2014, February 3, 2014 and February 24, 2014. The gatherings covered the subject of economic development, specifically, retail development in Columbus. At each of the gatherings, the Council members met in two subquorum groups of three, and each subquorum group met with the Mayor and representatives from the Golden Triangle Development Link (the Link). After the gatherings, the Link announced that it had "decided to renew their retail development partnership" with the City of Columbus.

         ¶5. The last pair of gatherings occurred on February 27, 2014, covering the subject of renovations to a public building. Once again, the Council members split into two subquorum groups of three to meet with the Mayor. After the gatherings, City officials issued a press release announcing how the project would be managed.

         ¶6. A reporter for The Commercial Dispatch (The Dispatch), Robert Nathan Gregory, requested to "sit in on" the gatherings that took place on February 27, 2014. He was denied entry. After speaking to the chief operations officer for the City of Columbus, Gregory learned that similar gatherings had occurred on January 23, 2014, February 3, 2014 and February 24, 2014. Gregory filed an Open Meetings Act Complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission detailing the four pairs of gatherings.

         ¶7. The Ethics Commission issued its Final Order on December 5, 2014. The Final Order found that the subject gatherings had circumvented the Open Meetings Act (the Act), and by circumventing the Act, the Mayor and City Council had violated it, specifically citing Mississippi Code Section 25-41-1, Mississippi Code Section 25-41-3 and Mississippi Code Section 25-41-5. The Commission ordered the Mayor and the City Council to "refrain from further violations" and "comply strictly with [the Act]."

         ¶8. The Mayor and the City Council appealed to the Chancery Court of Lowndes County. On appeal, The Dispatch stepped in as the petitioner in place of Gregory.[1] On May 24, 2016, after a de novo review, the trial court issued its Opinion and Judgment. The trial court upheld the Commission's ruling that the subject ...


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