Open meetings should be taken seriously

Published 7:05 pm Friday, May 18, 2012

On Tuesday, the Memorial Hospital Authority held its regularly scheduled monthly meeting. During that meeting, the Authority called for an executive session, which it is well within its rights to do under certain circumstances. According to the minutes of that meeting, the Authority then ended the executive session and returned to open session.

However, when the authority entered back into open session, it did not tell members of the public — including our reporter — to come back into the conference room.

It was only after talking to Authority Chairman Charles Tyson that our reporter, Carolyn Iamon, learned the board had approved a 26-percent raise in salary for Hospital CEO Billy Walker. Tyson later told our editorial staff that he was sorry not to call the public back in for the open meeting, and we do appreciate that apology.

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However, the Authority has failed on previous occasions to run its meetings correctly, including taking votes in executive session — something prohibited by state law. We were later provided minutes of Tuesday’s meeting, which stated that the Authority came back into open session after the executive session. However, because no members of the public were present inside the conference room, we don’t know if that is actually the case. In addition, it calls into question whether the salary increase and other Authority actions are legitimate, since they were not approved in an open meeting where the public was present.

The Decatur County Board of Commissioners is also in a bit of hot water over questionable open meetings law observance. Commissioner Dr. Earl Perry noted that the board accepted the resignation of Former County Administrator Tom Patton, and approved his severance pay, during an executive session on Feb. 28. However, the board did not take the same action in an open meeting session, and therefore those actions are illegal and void, Perry said.

Open government is one of the tenets of a free society. Both the Decatur County government and Hospital Authority receive taxpayer money, so they are answerable to the public. There are times when meetings can be legally closed, but the board must also come back into open session and then take any action — or simply call for the meeting to be adjourned with no action taken.

No action or votes can be taken in an executive session, and an “open meeting” is only open if the public is called back in to witness the proceedings. Our local government entities should keep these simple rules in mind from now on.