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Ethics Commission: Open meetings law not violated in redistricting effort

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The Mississippi Ethics Commission dismissed a complaint alleging the Legislature’s Joint Redistricting Committee violated the state’s open meetings law in developing a plan to redraw the four U.S. House seats.

The eight-member Ethics Commission, which is responsible for hearing allegations of public officials violating the open meetings law, said there was no violation because the Redistricting Committee never met behind closed doors with a quorum present, according to affidavits from Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, the chair of the committee, and from vice chair Sen. Dean Kirby, R-Pearl.

“A meeting is an assemblage of members of a public body at which official acts may be taken upon a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power,” the commission wrote in its opinion dismissing the complaint. “Official acts, including deliberations, may only be taken when a quorum of the public body assembles.”

For the committee to have a quorum, which is needed to conduct official business, six House members and six Senate members must be present.

READ MORE: Groups allege Redistricting Committee violated public meetings law

The ACLU complaint alleged, “The extent of the redistricting work that the Committee has performed thus far makes it apparent that the Committee has performed public business in private. In fact, following its November public meeting, Chairman Jim Beckett invited the Committee’s members to his office to view the U.S. congressional map that would be, and was, offered, voted on and adopted by the Committee.”

But Beckett and Kirby told the Ethics Commission there never was a quorum present during any closed door meeting.

The Ethics Commission said the ACLU contended that a quorum does not have to be present for there to be a violation of Mississippi’s open meetings law.

“That contention is incorrect,” the commission ruled, based on past state Supreme Court rulings.

The ACLU has the right to appeal the Ethics Commission ruling to a state court.

It already is likely that the NAACP and others will challenge the congressional redistricting plan in federal court. The new map was approved by the Redistricting Committee late last year and ultimately passed by the Legislature in January.

READ MORE: Mississippi NAACP questions constitutionality of redistricting plan

The NAACP told a federal judge last week there were issues with the plan, including the large geographic size of the Black-majority district in the plan. NAACP attorneys said the large district makes it more difficult to elect an African American U.S. House member.

Federal law, most agree, mandates that Mississippi have an African American majority U.S. House district because of the large African American population in the state, which is about 38%.

The state is supposed to redraw the congressional districts every 10 years to adhere to population shifts found by the decennial census. The Legislature also is in the process of redrawing the 174 state House and Senate seats.

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