TUPELO • Dogs barking in the background, pleas for participants to mute their mics and issues with spotty audio have become the new norm for government in Northeast Mississippi as some public bodies have shifted to meeting by telephone or video conference as a means to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Clear-cut instruction for how political subdivisions are supposed to grant the general public access to open meetings while adhering to state and federal health guidelines has been scarce, but the Mississippi Ethics Commission, the state organization that enforces open meeting and public records laws, advised state and local government to strictly follow all state and federal coronavirus safety guidelines.
“The Ethics Commission also encourages public bodies to comply with the Open Meetings Act as best they can under these extraordinary circumstances,” said Tom Hood, the executive director of the commission. “Public bodies should take all measures within their means to ensure transparency in public affairs while doing everything possible to protect public health.”
Under state law, public bodies may conduct meetings by teleconference and have members of the body participate from different locations, but the technology used to conduct the meeting must be located in the same place where traditional meetings are typically conducted.
Additionally, a government body must still give proper notice to the public that it plans to conduct open meetings, even when it plans to hold a special-called meeting outside of its regularly scheduled meetings. If the public body plans to hold a special-called meeting, it must give proper notice at least one hour prior to the meeting and post the notice on its website if it is able.
“A copy of this notice shall be transmitted via email or facsimile not less than one hour before the meeting to any citizen and any publication, broadcast and digital media with a general circulation or coverage within the public body’s jurisdiction, that has submitted in writing its interest to receive these notices,” the law states.
Even though many Northeast Mississippi government bodies have tried to be innovative with public meetings during pandemic, this does not mean there haven’t been technical problems. After having a hard time hearing the audio on previous Tupelo City Council meetings conducted with the video conference app Zoom, Ward 4 Councilman Buddy Palmer on Tuesday decided to physically go to Tupelo City Hall to hear the discussions.
One of the legal requirements of using technology during an open meeting is for its members to be able to fully hear the topics being discussed. Palmer was able to hear the discussions better in person than when he attempted to participate by phone, but he said he does plan to use the Zoom app at the city’s next meeting.
“Hopefully, it’ll get better as we kind of learn and do it more,” Palmer said.
In addition to using Zoom, the Tupelo City Council has been livestreaming its meetings on Facebook and still airing its meetings on television. In the county, the Lee County Board of Supervisors has temporarily closed its physical meetings to the public, but is allowing the public and its county employees to call to listen to the meeting.
The Oxford Board of Aldermen is conducting meetings by teleconference, and is allowing up to 10 people in the meeting at one time. The city is also streaming its meetings on Facebook and YouTube.
Leonard Van Slyke, an attorney for the Mississippi Press Association, told the Daily Journal that public bodies, the media and the general public should all try to coordinate with one another in good faith regarding access to meetings, but overall, the government is still required to follow the spirit of the Open Meetings Act.
“They can bar members of the public (from physically attending) as long as the public still has access to the meeting via teleconference,” Van Slyke said.
Van Slyke recommends the public and members of the media contact government officials to request they be put on mailing lists to avoid missing any government meetings.