The Mississippi Ethics Commission says local officials on the Gulf Coast improperly held a closed-door meeting with the state auditor earlier this year.
In a preliminary ruling the commission issued Friday, a hearing officer found the Diamondhead City Council “violated” the Open Meetings Act when four of five council members met Jan. 31 with Auditor Stacey Pickering.
The ruling said a quorum of the board discussed city business without providing public access or notice or recording minutes. A quorum consists of a majority of the governing group.
Councilman Ernie Knobloch said he and three colleagues met privately only because Pickering told them it was legal.
“The thing is, we should not have taken the legal advice of the state auditor,” Knobloch told the newspaper.
Mayor Tommy Schaefer and Councilwoman Nancy Depreo were excluded from the meeting. At the time, Schaefer called it an “illegal meeting” and a “blatant violation” of state law.
Council members requested a meeting with Pickering to discuss a performance audit of the city and a letter the mayor sent to Pickering’s office in response to the audit. The meeting came one day before Pickering’s office publicly released the audit findings. It was held at City Hall and lasted about an hour.
Schaefer found out about the meeting as it was happening and went into the conference room to try to stop it because he said he knew it was against the law. But when he expressed concerns, Pickering told him to take it up with the Ethics Commission, the mayor said. Depreo later filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission.
The four councilmen responded, telling the Ethics Commission they originally planned to meet with Pickering in groups of two to avoid having a quorum. However, the commission has previously ruled that such a method, dubbed a “rolling quorum,” also violates the Open Meetings Act.
Pickering responded to inquiries from the Sun Herald shortly after that meeting and said the Open Meetings Act did not apply to him. His office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the Ethics Commission’s ruling.
Diamondhead City Council attorney Sean Tindell, who is also a state senator, said the situation is “unfortunate” because the council members did not want to hold such a meeting. Tindell said: “But what do you do when the auditor tells you his attorneys said it was OK?”