OUR OPINION: Charter bill meeting procedure not right

By NEMS Daily Journal

That the Mississippi Senate Education Committee approved a charter school bill Tuesday was no surprise. The Senate voted last year to allow charter schools across the state.
But the manner in which the committee considered the bill before it came to an official vote was unexpected and probably in violation of the Senate’s own rules.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves on Monday evening called together committee members for a review of the bill in his office. While the Legislature exempts itself from the open meetings bill it passed to govern other public bodies in the state, the Senate’s rules do require that all committee meetings be announced from the floor. This one wasn’t.
Senate committees also customarily meet in open session; the Monday meeting was held without public knowledge or the chance for public viewing of the proceedings.
Education Committee Chairman Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said the meeting was a courtesy to members who would be voting the next day on the bill. But whatever the intention, it wasn’t the proper way to handle major legislation on a subject in which there is intense interest and widely divergent opinions. That’s especially true given the unavailability of copies of the bill, online or otherwise, to the public before the Tuesday morning vote.
The committee met for an hour or more in Reeves’ office. It met only about 20 minutes Tuesday before voting on the bill.
This highly unusual, if not unprecedented, procedure denied anyone outside of the committee the opportunity to hear what was discussed with and among the committee membership about the legislative leadership’s top 2013 priority. It simply wasn’t the right way to proceed.
Reeves’ spokesperson said the lieutenant governor meets with senators in his office all the time and will continue to do so. That’s fine, and certainly expected. But this was not an appropriately private discussion with an individual senator or small group; it was a de facto meeting of the committee, and it should have been announced and open.
The closed meeting won’t change the course on charter school legislation, but that’s not the point. It’s a matter of conducting the public’s business openly. In this case, the Senate leadership fell short of the mark.