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RANT: Doing public business in secret meetings

Closed meetings Routine closed door "Executive Sessions" deny the public's right to information about how elected city officials transacts its business.
“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”                                         — Patrick Henry,  June 9, 1788

Too much public business in New Albany is conducted in secret meetings.

Invariably, the final item listed on every agenda of the New Albany Board of Aldermen is “Executive Session.” It’s routine, always there, like approving minutes of prior meetings or paying the city’s routine bills. It is the regular practice of the city board to kick everybody out of the chambers at the end of each monthly meeting and meet secretly for a while, sometime just for a few minutes, sometime the closed meetings lasts well into the night.

Are the aldermen routinely and deliberately doing anything evil in their regularly scheduled secret meeting? We doubt it. It’s as much habit as expediency. They’ve always done it, and will continue it until New Albany voters demand otherwise.

Do we deny that there are times when the public interest demands that sensitive information not be widely distributed? Of course not. A good example occurred more than a decade ago when several local governments in the area kept a very tight lid on discussions that resulted in Toyota Corporation locating its newest North American plant in Union County. The public benefit in that secret recruitment and negotiation is undeniable. Usually, however, the issues discussed in secret meetings are of far less consequence and on matters of which the public has every right to be fully informed.

Editor J. Lynn West pointed out in an editorial last week in the New Albany Gazette that the routine secret meetings of the New Albany Board of Aldermen are held for reasons that are vague, unspecific and mundane.

It has been our own observation that, most commonly, the business discussed secretly is possibly controversial and might prove embarrassing to someone. But the public interest is in no way served by secrecy.

A number of times in recent years, when something has come up in a public meeting of the New Albany Board of Aldermen, we have heard one alderman or another say, “I’d be more comfortable discussing that in an executive session,” and then the public hears no more about it.

Well here it is: the comfort level of any aldermen is not relevant to how any public business is conducted. They are elected to a place of honor to perform a public duty. There is never any justification for them to act for their personal comfort.

West is right that the city board needs to conform more faithfully to the Mississippi Open Meetings Law. Just as urgently, they need to adopt a whole new attitude about their responsibility for keeping the public in the loop about public business. THAT would be a sea change.

For more about surprises and secrets in government:

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1 Comment on RANT: Doing public business in secret meetings

  1. I’m guessing that the municipal code requires the party going into executive session to state the reason why and/or the necessity.

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