Guest Post | Lana Noonan: Did the Bay St Louis City Council Violate the Mississippi Open Meetings Act?

At the outset, let me say that The Hancock County Alliance for Good Government has no interest in the personalities involved in the Bay St. Louis Historic Preservation Commission.

What we do have an interest in, as per our Mission Statement, is keeping the political process clean, regardless of the individuals involved in the execution of the public’s business.

On the evening of May 8, 2018, at their regular meeting, the Bay St. Louis City Council, after exiting Executive Session, acted on a item of business that was NOT on their advertised Agenda. That item of business was the dismissal of a Commissioner from the Bay St. Louis Historic Preservation Commission.

During the course of the meeting, at the second Public Forum of the evening, Ward II citizen, Teri Velardi, asked Council if they were going to take any kind of action that evening regarding the Historic Preservation Commission. She actually polled the Council one by one. All said “no.”

Council President Gene Hoffman who represents Ward II, said that there could be some issues with the Commission, but not that night. Velardi pressed them with the possibility of an Executive Session on the issue, and all either said they had no issues that night with the Commission or as Ward IV Councilman, Larry Smith said, “he had no opinion at that time on the Commission.”

When Council President Hoffman entertained a motion to consider going into Executive Session, City Attorney, Heather Smith, was the only one to say she had a property purchase and 4 or 5 litigation issues to discuss with Council. The motion by Councilman DeSalvo, and seconded by Councilman Smith passed unanimously to go into closed session.

When Council re-entered regular session, Councilman Smith motioned to dismiss Commissioner Ellis Anderson from the Historic Preservation Commission. His motion was seconded and carried with the exception of Council-at-large, Knoblock, who had not yet re-entered the Council Chambers from Executive Session, taking a bathroom break. The motion was made, no discussion, motion seconded, passed. Done.

The Mississippi Open Meetings Act states section 25-41-5(3) that an Agenda of items to be acted upon must be prepared and made available to the members of the public body and the public “at the time of the meeting.”

An examination of the Agenda published for public review and provided to the public before the meeting did NOT include the dismissal of a Commissioner from the Bay St. Louis Historic Preservation Commission.

The Hancock County Alliance for Good Government contends that this action by the Bay St. Louis City Council prohibited the public from their right to know that a Commissioner was being dismissed, and their right to either listen to the deliberation or participate at one of the two Public Forums.

The Bay St. Louis – Waveland School District Board of Trustees did the same thing last August, 2017, when they voted to go into Executive Session under false pretense of personnel, and after exiting Executive Session voted 3 to 2, Kidd, Bell, and Thomas for; Arnold and Favre against, to extend for 4 years the contracts of Superintendent Vikki Landry and her brother, Business Administrator, Jon McCraw.

The Mississippi Ethics Commission upheld a complaint against the School Board finding them in violation of the above mentioned statute, and put the School Board on notice to refrain from this practice in the future and to only act on items that have been included in their published Agenda. Failure to abide by a written finding of the Ethics Commission can result in a fine for the public officials in violation.

This type of behavior by two public entities in the city of Bay St. Louis begs the question, “where were the publicly paid attorneys for these public bodies? Why didn’t they stop their client from violating a law that so clearly protects the public’s right to know.?”

Not to mention, Council President, Gene Hoffman himself is a practicing attorney!!!

Is it time to report the Bay St. Louis City Council to the Ethics Commission? They don’t seem able to discipline themselves, and their legal counsel, like the School Board’s neglected her opportunity to keep her client within the confines of state law, and protect the public that provides her compensation.

Lana Noonan
Hancock County Alliance for Good Government

19 thoughts on “Guest Post | Lana Noonan: Did the Bay St Louis City Council Violate the Mississippi Open Meetings Act?”

  1. I was at the meeting. It was a crystal clear violation of the state statute. There was no mention in the press at all.
    Time to file with the Ethics Commission has passed.

    1. I don’t think there is a time element here. This infraction is current enough to file against them, unless you are using a figure of speech. I would say a complaint is in order.
      How Heather Smith allowed them to discuss this in Ex. Sess. and ultimately act on it knowing this was not on the Agenda is unbelievable.

  2. Did I miss something here???? A member of a commission is NOT an employee, so how do they have the Executive Session to discuss the firing / removal? At the time was there any pending or possible “litigation” against Ms. Anderson?
    I don’t think they have to be specific as to who they will be discussing to going into executive session, but they should have listed Personnel Matters… Even though she is not “personnel”
    This new council is a MESS…

    1. Disgusted,
      The citizen volunteers who serve the community on various commissions and committees are not on the city’s personnel budget.
      Even if there were a potential litigation issue here, the dismissal of a Commissioner should have been on the Agenda, and at that point Councilmen Smith and DeSalvo could have requested from the President a motion to address this Agenda item in Executive Session. It was not on the published Agenda, and no Councilman moved to amend the Agenda.
      Reed and Seal have been on that Council since Adam modeled his fig
      leaf. They should have take care if this appropriately. Did they? No.
      It all boils down to ” the public’s right to know!”
      Public bodies cannot have secret Agendas for the simple reason they are taking care of
      “Public” business.

      1. Enough please…file it….. problem I’ve read in 11 months is being sneaky not public… grow some B-LLS and follow laws. City Attorney? I’m not certain but Commissions are public bodies not Council’s secret club… sound like Mr. Les all over again…

    2. Disgusted: when you are appointed you are serving at the pleasure of who appoints. That lady is a disruption to a productive and harmonious community. She interferes with business people all the time of course she has no to little interest in just being an asshole to whoever doesn’t think like her. They need to add to the requirement that you must be a voter in Hancock county or specifically BSL. She has grand stranded here for too long! Let her invest how she wants. Kicking her ass to the road however they did it was a good move.

  3. Ms Lana – I think it is wonderful that you are taking interest in your community. It is sad that more are not rallying behind you in an effort to demand honest government and get rid of the “good ole boy” system that is throughout our State. Even though you carry the torch mostly on your own merit, I encourage you to continue your work and commend you on all you have done and will do in the future to get a hold on an arrogant, out-of-control local government. Shame on them all! Power and greed are terrible things.

    1. Charlene,
      On behalf of the Alliance, thank you for your kind words and encouragement.
      I would never allow myself to get all of the credit for the work this small but enthusiastic, tight knit group of citizens do. Many would be surprised at those who are card carrying members. From clergy to educators, retired business people, and even members of the press.
      As the Ethics Commission told the Bay St. Louis School Board, when a public body fails to be specific with the public they serve, the spirit of the law is damaged.
      And, how disappointing that only 10 months into their 4 year terms, we now can identify Councilmen in Bay St. Louis who are ready to circumvent the public’s right to know with their own secret, private agendas. Didn’t take them long did it?!
      The Hancock County Alliance for Good Government won’t be deterred by that ilk, and will continue to observe, confront, and expose this behavior at every incident in our efforts to promote:
      Excellence in Education, Integrity in Spending, and Openness in Governing!!

  4. Yes thank you Miss Lana. I have almost no knowledge of city regulations and procedures. We rely on your knowledge, sense of decency and ethics, regardless of party politics.
    Yes, a complaint should be filed.
    I cannot help but wonder that Ellis’ trouble with the HPC and PJ’s Coffee aren’t the basis for her immediate, unaired dismissal. Our NOLA guy will have a big influence over City issues. Pretending that won’t happen is conscious blindness.
    Thanks Lana, I’m behind you.

  5. Lana
    Not sure exactly what took place at the meeting with this but you stated they went in executive session for litigation.
    I do believe historical Commission was on the agenda.
    You state Smith stated not at this time, my thought may be something later.
    I guess later was executive session.
    Get back to reason the decision was made to release Anderson was
    Possible suits against the city
    Why
    Because of her actions
    And why did they go into executive session
    Because possible legal litigation
    So what is wrong with this???
    This and what happened with the school is not even close. Day and night. My thoughts.
    But glad you look out for our best but believe this is not a problem. My opinion.
    But if you or Maggie or Rachael really want to help us go after bonds.
    File with the AG against:
    Singleton
    Bell Kidd thomas
    Courtney
    Les
    DiNardo
    Bay PD
    Koff
    And more
    Thanks for keeping us up but see no problem with what went on.
    So turn it over and let’s see.
    But Again file with the AG and get our money back. Way more valuable than this.

    1. Stone,
      There is an Open Meetings issue here because Council took action on a item that was not on their published Agenda.
      The public has the right to know what business their public officials will address st their meetings.
      The dismissal of a Commissioner was not on the Agenda.
      Teri Velardi gets credit for this because she asked them individually at Public Forum if they were going to act on anything pertains to the Commission that night, and each one said,”no.”
      That resulted in some citizens leaving only to discover later they did exactly what they not only failed to advertise to the public this topic, but acted upon it with no discussion after exiting the Executive Session.
      I am going to have to side with the Ethics opinion against the School Board last August about their failure to be specific with the public on Ex. Sess. and disagree with you.
      Velardi should take a victory lap. She spoon fed every one of them the opportunity to tell the truth and be open and honest with the public they serve.
      They chose otherwise.

    2. The tried and true excuse as an end around to the open meetings law is “potential pending litigation “. Used 90% of the time to close a meeting, and it was hear.
      “They were talking about dissolving it,” said Reed, the only councilman to offer insight about what when on in the executive session. “I wasn’t for dissolving and I wasn’t for pulling Ellis Anderson off the Commission.”
      That’s what was discussed when the meeting was closed to the public, and it’s illegal, and immortal. Speak in public with the public.

  6. From the Sun Herald 5/17 story about the firing:

    Councilman Jeffery Reed, one of two dissenting votes (Doug Seal was the other), said some on the council wanted to go even further.

    “They were talking about dissolving it,” said Reed, the only councilman to offer insight about what when on in the executive session. “I wasn’t for dissolving and I wasn’t for pulling Ellis Anderson off the Commission.”

    Yes, Lana, I was using a figure of speech. This and the new HR director both need to head up to Ethics sooner than later.

  7. I feel there is a need to clarify a couple of observations by two different posters here. They are entitled to their observations, but it is obvious they have made them without benefit of reading the Miss. Ethics Commission ruling on the Bay St. Louis-Waveland School Board with regard to being specific on the preparation of the Agenda of a public body and the body’s responsibility to be “specific” regarding the business to come before them in their published Agendas.
    “Disgusted” seems to be of the opinion that the Council did not have to be specific with regard to announcing the matters to be considered in Executive Session. Wrong, the Ethics Commission, who also cited the Miss. Supreme Court, emphasized “specificity” in these matters 16 different times in their ruling on the School Board. The public has the right to know with specificity, exactly what topic of business will be deliberated by their officials in Executive Session. Thus, the need for a motion to consider whether or not to enter closed session.

    Stone Cold, the Historic Commission was on the Agenda under 8. (a) for the appointment of John Bezou to the Commission. It is my understanding that this was not addressed. But it is a very different matter than dismissing a Commissioner. Also, the Council listed this openly as they should have because citizen volunteers who serve on these public boards and commissions are not personnel and discussion of them does not meet the criteria in the Open Meetings Act of privacy under Executive Session. Mrs. Anderson’s dismissal should have been listed on the Agenda for dismissal just like Mr. Bezou’s appointment.

    Stone, one more correction to your post, on the video tape I viewed, it was Council President, Hoffman, who responded to Ms. Velardi’s question as to whether or not the Council would address anything pertaining to Historic Commission that night either in open or executive session, by saying,”not tonight.” He did not say, “not at this time.” He said, “not tonight.”

    A few Conclusions of Law listed in the Ethics Commission’s ruling on the School Board:

    2.1 “The Open Meetings Act was enacted for the benefit of the public, and is to construed liberally in favor of the public. Every member of every public board and commission in this state should always bear in mind that the spirit of the Act is that a citizen spectator, including any representative of the press, has just as much right to attend the meeting and see and hear everything that is going on as has any member of the board or commission.”

    2.6 Based on the record in this case, the board failed to announce the reasons for entering executive session with sufficient specificity prior to entering executive session and failed to record the reasons for entering executive session with sufficient specificity in its minutes. As a result, the board violated the Open Meetings Act on August 14, 2017.

    My suggestion to the Bay St. Louis City Council to show an act of good faith to the public they serve would be to make the following changes to their Agenda:

    Add at the beginning of the Agenda for the Chairman to ask each Council member if they received the Agenda, and if there are any amendments to it they would like to offer in a motion, such as additions or deletions, and to be specific.

    Once the Agenda for the evening has been adopted and approved by motion, the business to come before the Council must adhere to this Agenda only. I have seen other public bodies and private organizations conduct business this way. It will eliminate the opportunity for those public officials who want to manipulate the agenda and deceive the public.

    Ward 3 Councilman Jeffrey Reed’s statement to the Sun Herald (May 17) that the discussion in Executive Session to dismiss Commissioner Anderson, and the effort Reed reported on the part of some Councilmen to completely dissolve the Bay St. Louis Historic Preservation Commission in this closed session, Councilman Smith’s answer to Ms. Velardi that “he had no opinion on the Historic Commission, Chairman Hoffman’s answer to Velardi that no action was in order on the Commission that night, is very troubling behavior on the part of these elected officials.

    And it should be stopped. Three more years of this would be torture for the citizens of Bay St. Louis.

    1. Mayor Ice got that moniker for his demeanor and the calm, rational arguments he made in replacing Joan Thomas on the school board. That issue was handled the right way and the legend of Mayor Ice was born.

      Now we have one of those learning moments.

      1. Doug,
        We cannot let it go unnoticed in this” learning” moment that this attitude of public exclusion, deceit, and underhanded politics is unanimously Republican now in the Bay.
        Hoffman, Smith, Zimmerman, and DeSalvo, were all vigorously supported by the local Republican party. Will this be the” GOP at work in the Bay” for the next 3 loooong years?!!!

  8. Lana, what a horrible thought…It sure is disappointing when you get new elected officials that pledge to do better than their predecessors and turn out to more of a disaster… 3 years maybe we can find someone better? One would think Mr. Hoffman would want to help and listen to his constituents since he only won by 2-3 votes? Forgot the number. I definitely would want to make friends not enemies. I called him about something and he was clueless, then stopped by his office when first elected to congratulate him and ask a question, still waiting for a call. Good thing it wasn’t life or death.
    These people run and get elected and don’t have the ability to actually connect with the people and serve as promised. We really need to watch and listen at the next election.

    1. Outraged,
      You need to start watching and listening NOW, at every meeting, not wait til the next election.
      The four who pulled this off on May 8, are a danger to your community. Don’t take this lightly. This was a calculated, devious act of contempt against the public’ right to know.
      Not over, either.

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