The Waveland Board of Aldermen on Tuesday effectively issued a gag order for city workers by adopting a new employee policy which requires the mayor or city attorney to authorize any and all public statements.
The addendum to the employee handbook was approved by a 3-1 margin, with Ward One Alderman Lili Stahler casting the lone “no” vote.
The policy is more than 400 words in length, redundant, and at times hard to read and understand.
Other prohibited behaviors such as drug use, gambling on city property, and criminal activity are mentioned in the employee handbook in single sentences only.
The new policy states, in part, that no “employees, official, or commissioners,” are allowed to give any interviews, statements, or press conferences with any media without prior approval from the mayor or city attorney.
After the measure was approved, Mayor Tommy Longo downplayed it saying the addendum was more of a “house-keeping” item than a controversial issue.
Longo said there has always been an “unwritten” rule about who can give statements to the media.
He said the city is not trying to hide any information from the public.
“Most all cities have a policy like this,” Longo said. “Any press statement should go through the department heads.”
Waveland’s policy on employee statements came under fire last month, when the city suspended Recovery Coordinator Brent Anderson after he gave interviews about the reopening of the Garfield Ladner Pier.
The interviews were all positive and only given after the mayor and aldermen were not available for comment.
The new policy was on the agenda Tuesday, but the discussion was held in secret in executive session.
Prior to the executive session, the Echo questioned why the discussion of a broad policy was needed to be kept from the public.
City Attorney Gary Yarborough declined to comment on the executive session, despite state law and attorney general’s opinions mandating that an explanation be given whenever a secret session is challenged.
Yarborough would only say the reason for the secret meeting was for “personnel and potential litigation.”
According to Mississippi law 25-41-7, executive sessions can only be entered into for specific reasons.
When the reason for going into executive session is for personnel issues, the personnel issues must be specific to certain employees.
There is no provision in the law for entering into an executive session to discuss a board policy.
Furthermore, the Mississippi Attorney General’s office has opined that the stated reasons for going into a secret meeting must be “concrete, specific, and identifiable as to the matters allowed.”
In an opinion dated July 2006, the AG’s office said “it must be more than some generalized term which in reality tells the public nothing.”
“To simply say, personnel matter or litigation, tells nothing,” the opinion said. “The reason stated must be of sufficient specificity to inform those present that there is in reality a specific, discrete matter or area which the board had to have determined should be discussed in executive session.”
When asked for a clarification and shown the previous legal opinions on Wednesday, Yarborough said “I’m not going to discuss what happened in executive session.”
Stahler said Wednesday she plans on asking the board to reconsider the item at the next meeting.
Longo said concerns over the new policy are not needed.
“We are just trying to make sure everyone is on the same page,” he said. “This policy is really nothing new,” Longo said. “It’s really not a big deal.”
Longo said department heads who currently give press releases such as the police and fire chief will continue to do so.
BY Dwayne Bremer
The Sea Coast Echo