Private sessions: Always counter-productive,sometimes destructive
As a general rule, public officials holding private meetings with each other to discuss public business is bad policy. In the case of a meeting earlier this week among city and county elected officials and U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., bad policy may actually have violated state law.
First, the policy.
There is a pattern in this community of cloaking the public's business in a shroud of secrecy. The Meridian Star has previously commented on this pattern, a pattern which is ultimately destructive and counter-productive. It eliminates from the decision-making process the very people who pay the bills and stand to benefit (or suffer) most the general public.
Officials have been known to get together, talk over issues, make decisions then emerge from behind closed doors to make self-serving pronouncements that paint rosy pictures of their closed door collaboration. Words such as "togetherness" and "cooperation" have a hollow ring when delivered following a private meeting, if only because there is no independent confirmation of what happened.
The consequences for any elected official who chooses to ignore the public's right to know can be dire: failed bond issues, skepticism and criticism of land purchases for industrial parks, suspicion over security at schools.
While this pattern of cloaking the public's business is an unfortunate practice of local officials, The Meridian Star is disappointed it was Pickering's office which sought the private meeting. A Pickering spokesman defined "private" as meaning no time for media interviews due to a tight schedule. That attitude, of course, also eliminated any chance of public discussion of projects of local interest.
It is especially disappointing that Pickering, whose candidacy for reelection we endorsed and for whom we have high regard, initiated an effort in this situation to stage a private meeting. A member of Pickering's staff even took the extraordinary step of attempting to "disinvite" an enterprising reporter from WTOK-TV to the meeting. That effort failed.
We are also disappointed neither the three city officials nor the four Lauderdale County supervisors who attended the meeting cared to stand up for the public's interest. Something important is lost when politicians select the place, time and conditions of conversations about the business of the public, and then fail to notify the public.
Mississippi's open meetings law is not difficult to circumvent for those intent on escaping public participation and scrutiny. And while it may not be written in the state code, public trust is built only by openness and inclusion.
Officials who seek the public's trust on election day have an obligation to return that trust.
The word from Pickering's Washington office delivered via E-mail about two hours before the meeting confirmed he "is in Meridian tonight (Tuesday Jan. 23) for a PRIVATE Meeting with the Mayor and board of supervisors. There is nothing top secret about the meeting, it is just a private meeting so Congressman Pickering can ask them about projects in Meridian and how they would like for him to help."
Sounds like public business to us.
The elected officials who participated in this meeting deserve a trip to the woodshed.
For his part, Pickering was apologetic in a conversation with The Meridian Star late Wednesday. This is a start at an explanation.
But the four members of the Lauderdale County board of supervisors who constitute a majority of that board should explain how their attendance squares with provisions of the state's Open Meetings Law requiring advance notice of meetings.
The more troubling aspect of this sorry episode is that Pickering's office seems oblivious to the damage caused by calling private meetings with public officials to conduct the public's business.
Who among these politicians will champion government in the sunshine, inclusion and openness, and the public's right to know?