The Mississippi Ethics Commission has determined that Ward 3 Bay St. Louis City Councilman Jeffrey Reed violated open meetings laws in an Aug. 8, 2020 text message to a quorum of the city council, and ruled that he must pay a $500 fine.
“I’m not going to contest it, because I did send that text,” Reed said Thursday. “At that moment, I didn’t realize that it was a violation. If I had realized it was a violation, I never would have done it.”
The ethics commission ruling is in response to two complaints filed earlier this year by Bay resident Andrew Burrell, who alleged that Reed had violated the Open Meetings Act by discussing city business via text message on Aug. 8, 2020 and March 17, 2021.
In the 2020 text to Mayor Mike Favre and councilmen Gary Knoblock, Gene Hoffman, Josh DeSalvo, Larry Smith, Doug Seal and Buddy Zimmerman, Reed asked them to “look closely” at the Old Spanish Trail/St. Francis/Dunbar corridor from Bookter to State Street and from Bookter to Hwy. 90.
“As we did from Suebe to Bookter, we … need to include this street in the bond to complete this most heavily traveled street,” Reed said in the text. He also asked the councilmen to add repairs to Labat Street and drainage repairs at Sycamore Street to the bond projects list.
Burrell also filed a complaint about Reed’s March 17, 2021 text to city attorney Heather Smith, in which the councilman said he was responding to her “email sent out on March 2, 2021. I would like you to bring all the legalities and boxes that we need to check to our council meeting on the evening of March 16, 2021. I don’t like meeting in private on this city project. I would rather meet in the presence of the entire city (on camera) and city council. It would also let citizens know the council is being very responsible with taxpayers money by having one meeting rather than two.”
The ethics commission said in its letter to Smith that Burrell had attached a copy of Reed’s message, showing that it had been sent to eight unidentified people, and that Mayor Mike Favre had responded: “First, you are violating open meeting laws. Next, you are finally replying to an email that was (sent) two weeks ago asking for an ASAP response. The comments about not meeting in private … I’m not sure what you are getting at there or what your accusations are? Have you even created a 501(c)(3) or charity for this? Have you provided any info requested by the building department? Permit?”
That exchange was in response to ongoing renovation projects at Martin Luther King Park, including the long-awaited splash pad. Reed had been accused of doing some of the preliminary work for the splash pad without getting the proper permits. He said at the time that he believed he had already been granted approval to move ahead with the project.
The bonds project list Reed was referring to in the August 2020 text was a list of road and drainage projects the council agreed to fund in 2019 after voting to procure up to $8 million in loans from the Mississippi Development Bank.
The council agreed at the time that 60 percent of the bond money would be spent in Zimmerman’s Ward 5 and DeSalvo’s Ward 6 - in the heart of the city’s so-called “annexed” area — since those wards were in the most dire need of paving and drainage projects. The other 40 percent of the funds would be split evenly between the other four wards, council members determined at the time.
In her response to the ethics commission on Reed’s behalf, Smith denied he had violated the Open Meetings Act, saying Reed “has never intended to conduct business through text messaging or any other form of electronic communication.” Smith said Reed was trying to provide information to the councilmen and mayor “so that each could do their own independent research prior to the city council meeting.”
“Reed was not opening the floor for deliberation or prompting deliberation of an action item,” Smith said. “Reed was simply creating a task list for the city council to consider at their next council meeting.”
“Additionally,” according to the ethics commission letter, “the council states that in the future, Councilman Reed ‘will not engage in group text messaging or emailing because one-way communication to multiple councilmen may be perceived as deliberation and should be avoided at all costs.’”
In its conclusions, the ethics committee ruled that Reed’s Aug. 2020 text did violate the Open Meetings Act, but his March 2021 text did not.
“(D)iscussions or deliberations among a quorum of council members outside a properly noticed open meeting, whether physically or electronically assembled, can violate the Mississippi Open Meetings Act,” the commission ruled, “when such deliberations concern matters over which the public body had supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power. … This court holds that all deliberative stages of the decision-making process that lead to ‘formation and determination of public policy’ are required to be open to the public.
“While Councilman Reed may not have intended to conduct city business through text messages, this message specifically requests that a quorum of his fellow council members take specific action - to add three road projects to the bond list - a first step in the decision making process. Regardless of whether the recipients read or responded to this text, the content of the text messages goes beyond merely conveying information, violating the Open Meetings Act, and should have been expressed at an open meeting.”
In contrast, the commission ruled, Reed’s second text message was directed to the city’s attorney and appears to be requesting she take all necessary procedural steps.
The ethics commission determined to impose the fine on Reed since he had been a member of the council on two separate occasions when other councilmen had been found to have violated the Open Meetings Act through electronic communications in two separate incidents.
In the commission’s April 2018 ruling in Oliver v. Bay St. Louis, “Former Councilman Lonnie Falgout was found to have violated the Open Meetings Act by sending two emails to a quorum of the council that attempted to influence the members and exhorted the quorum to specific action. No fine was imposed on Councilman Falgout, since this was the first Order entered by the Ethics Commission that held a member of a public body can violate the Open Meetings Act when he sends a single electronic communication to a quorum of the public body in an attempt to influence the public body regarding a matter under its authority.”
In a February 2019 ruling on Noonan v. Bay St. Louis, the commission determined that “Councilman Larry Smith was found to have violated the Open Meetings Act by sending a proposed motion to a quorum of the council via email which attempted to influence the Council to vote to dissolve the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. No fine was imposed on Councilman Smith, as he was not a member of the council at the time the prior Open Meetings violation occurred.”
Reed said Thursday he didn’t think at the time that the August 2020 text violated the Open Meetings Act because he wasn’t asking the council to vote on anything, just to actually do what it had already voted to do, which is divide the street repair funds evenly between wards 1, 2, 3 and 4.
“That’s what the council not only agreed to do, they put their signature on it,” Reed said. “I told the mayor if he didn’t agree with it, he should veto it … but he put his signature on it, too. But once the cake came in, they wanted to split it up differently.
“When you split it up evenly, every ward gets $574,000. But when the engineering report came in, … they didn’t divide it up like we agreed, so before our next meeting, I looked at the streets and I … texted the council and said ‘y’all need to look at these streets.”
Although the state ethics commission offered Reed an opportunity to schedule a hearing to protest its findings, Reed said he had accepted the commission’s ruling and would pay the fine.
“I wasn’t asking (the council) to vote on anything,” Reed said, “I was just asking them to look at it. I wanted them to add those streets so I could bring my ward’s project lists up as close as I could to the allotted money. But I did text them and ask them to look at it, so that’s a violation.”