Bay memo urges group to ignore open meetings law

The mayor of Bay St. Louis has disassociated himself with a memo recently issued by his office that told members of a new city advisory committee they can ignore Mississippi’s open meetings law.

“I can assure you, the meetings will be open,” Mayor Les Fillingame said Friday of the municipal Economic Development Committee, which was formed to help explore new economic opportunities for the city. He said he did not author the memo or approve its release.

The issue stemmed from a communication from City Hall that was circulated to members of the Bay St. Louis City Council following the development committee’s first meeting on March 30. The memo, which recounted events of the meeting, said in part:

“Mayor Fillingame outlined some simple rules of order, primarily the need for confidentiality in discussions. Regular reports would be made to the City Council through the mayor on activities of the committee as appropriate to insure confidentiality, or in executive session as necessary.”

The memo went on to add: “The committee is strictly an advisory committee and as such does not need to follow Mississippi’s Open Meeting regulations.”

That directly contradicts three opinions issued over time by the office of the Mississippi Attorney General, in response to requests from the cities of Moss Point, Cleveland, and McComb. All concluded that city advisory committees must open their meetings to the public.

One of the three opinions, which was issued in 2009, also specified that municipal advisory committees must make the regular days and times of their meetings available to the public.

Both Fillingame and City Attorney Donald Rafferty told the Sea Coast Echo they had not seen the memo, did not issue or authorize it, and were unaware of its existence until the newspaper made inquiries. The Echo had obtained the memo independently.

“I can’t confirm or deny that memo is out there, which should speak volumes,” Rafferty said, adding that the administration and the Economic Development Committee should heed the attorney general’s opinions.

“I think our AG’s opinions are rock-solid, and should be followed,” the city attorney said. “In today’s climate, openness is more important than trying to be secret.”

Fillingame said the communication apparently was issued by a member of his staff who had no legal background and no authority to issue advice on circumventing the open meetings law.

“I would take great issue with this. I’ve got a problem with it. I really do. These will definitely be open meetings,” he said.

The mayor did not say whether any disciplinary action would be taken against the employee. He said he believed he knew who was responsible, but wanted to investigate further.

The nine-member Economic Development Committee was appointed recently by the City Council, and members were appointed by the council and Fillingame. Committee members are Chet LeBlanc, Sam Moore, John Rosetti, Teri Wyly, Charles Vincent, Dusty Rhodes, Lee Seal, Dave Richardson, and David Holman.

Holman said Friday that membership on the committee is his first involvement in government, and he had been unaware of the public meeting requirement. He said there may be a need for confidentiality among committee members at some point, primarily to prevent another community from learning of a Bay project and usurping it.

However, Holman said, “I want to make sure they do it right. I don’t want to do anything that’s not above-board.”

BY J.R. Welsh

The Sea Coast Echo

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