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City council meeting matter of public record

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City council meeting matter of public record

  • The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that a daily newspaper reporter had the right to attend a gathering of public officials, whose get-together was a meeting under state law, not a “social gathering” as they claimed.

Feb. 27, 2004 — What a lower court called a “social gathering” of public officials, the Supreme Court of Mississippi yesterday ruled a “meeting” that should have been open to the public.

The Supreme Court overturned a 2002 decision by the Chancery Court in Jackson, saying a meeting that included members of the Jackson City Council was a matter of public interest, and minutes of that meeting should be released to the press and the public.

The court held that under the state Open Meetings Act the gathering was a public meeting because council members were notified in writing in advance of the gathering and no spouses or family members attended. Though no “official acts” were taken, the court said official acts are not imperative in defining a meeting.

The Mississippi Open Meetings Acts states that “all meetings of a public body be public except for when under executive session.”

“The council felt the meeting would work better without reporters listening to all of their foibles,” said attorney Leonard Van Slyke, who represented The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger. “But in the end, it is going back to the trial court because it was a meeting of public record.”

On Oct. 5, 2000, several members of the Jackson City Council, the mayor, the city attorney and the assistant city attorney gathered at the Jackson school district’s Environmental Learning Center. Gregg Mayer, a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger, heard about the meeting and attempted to cover it. He was denied access.

Mayer returned later with Clarion-Ledger attorney Mark Fijman, who told the public officials that they were violating Mississippi’s open meetings law. Both men were denied access.

Weeks later, the Clarion-Ledger sought minutes from the meeting, but council members said the gathering was unofficial and thus not a matter of public record.

The newspaper sued, and in November 2002 the Chancery Court held that the gathering of public officials was a social event, not a meeting. The Clarion-Ledger appealed to the Supreme Court, the state’s sole appellate court.

Council members claimed that they gathered to get to know one other, Van Slyke said, and that no one took minutes during their meeting.

(Gannett River States Publishing Company, Inc. d/b/a The Clarion-Ledger v. City of Jackson, Miss.; Media Counsel: Leonard Van Slyke, Watkins, Ludlum, Winter and Stennis, Jackson, Miss.) LH

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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