In violation of Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law, Lincoln Parish Sheriff Mike Stone attempted to hold a series of secret meetings with members of the Lincoln Parish Police Jury Monday in a tactic known as a walking quorum to discuss a new tax.
The State of Louisiana explicitly forbids publicly elected officials from meeting in secret to discuss public business. This law is intended to prevent the type of backroom deals which previously were commonplace in Louisiana and which have so tarnished the state’s reputation as an honest place to do business. These secret meetings are a violation of the public trust in which the interests of the public take a back seat to the interests of the parties involved. In recent years, Louisiana has made significant strides in repairing its reputation as a corrupt state and such meetings only serve to reinforce the stereotype of corruption it has long sought to leave behind.
Lincoln Parish Sheriff Mike Stone, along with Third Judicial Assistant District Attorney Andy Shealy, attempted to hold a series of walking quorum meetings with members of the Lincoln Parish Police Jury. A walking quorum involves meeting with various members of a body in numbers just shy of the number required to consist of a quorum and triggering the definition of the body being in session. By holding the number of participants less than that required to be considered a quorum for the body, no official meeting occurs and no public meeting laws are violated.
The purpose of Sheriff Stone’s secret meeting with the Police Jury was to explain his plans to ask the Police Jury for its support of a new tax intended to fund operations of his planned public safety complex. Sheriff Stone has secured funding from state and federal sources to develop and build the complex, but operations would have to be funded by the Police Jury from new taxes to be levied upon the citizens of Lincoln Parish. It goes without saying that consideration of new taxes in such austere times is a difficult proposition at best. Lincoln Parish residents are resistant to taxes in the best of economic times.
Fortunately, members of the local press happened to be on hand to attend the proceedings and protect the public interest. Morning Paper publisher John Hays and Walter Abbott from Lincoln Parish News Online appeared at the courthouse to report on the proceedings after receiving an email detailing the meetings and their intentions. Stone and Shealy met with various Police Jurors at two earlier meetings and were preparing to meet with other Jurors when the reporters arrived, holding copies of the email in question.
The public is ill-served by elected officials seeking to circumvent the law by conducting public business behind closed doors and out of sight of the very public they seek to serve. Such meetings are never in the public interest, else they would be held in public for all to see. The citizens of Lincoln Parish would be wise to consider replacing Sheriff Stone at the next available opportunity. As Lincoln Parish Sheriff, it is unconscionable for him to even suggest circumvention of the very laws he has sworn to uphold and downright stupid of him to point out in the email that this was his intention. As an Assistant District Attorney, Andy Shealy knew exactly what he was doing and which laws he was violating. He should be fired immediately and have his law license revoked by the State of Louisiana. Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell should be notified of this incident so a full investigation by his office can get underway in the interests of protecting the public from such corrupt actions by local officials.
Louisiana citizens have lived with the stigma of corruption for far too long. They’ve watched their children move to other states to take advantage of the opportunities that refuse to locate in our state. Incidents such as this are precisely the reason businesses refuse to locate operations in Louisiana or hesitate to expand existing operations. Most Louisiana businesses have to be located here to take advantage of our abundant natural resources. Beyond natural resources, Louisiana’s business base gets thin because they have the ability to locate elsewhere. It remains to be seen whether Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal will weigh in on the situation in Lincoln Parish. It is certainly in his best interests to see that secret meetings are exposed and prosecuted in his quest for better ethics among Louisiana’s public officials. Episodes like this only serve to set back any progress made towards eliminating the stereotype of corruption that keeps business from locating in our state.