By NEMS Daily Journal
Persistence, persuasion and compromise paid off this week when the Mississippi Senate agreed with the House’s version of a bill that would stiffen our state’s open meetings law by requiring public sector violators to pay fines out of their pockets rather than from the public purse.
The revised law would require public officials at all levels who illegally close meetings or take illegal action in closed meetings to pay a $500 fine on first offense and a $1,000 fine on a second offense. It’s hoped that a $1,500 pop on the pocketbook would alter illegal behavior denying citizens access to what should be transparent government process.
The idea that tax dollars should pay the fines of public officials for violating open meetings/ open records laws is ludicrous on its face because it offers no deterrent incentive. Paying fines from personal resources, not from taxpayers’ funds, is the right way to make the law more effective.
Mississippi is the only state that charges taxpayers when public officials break open meetings laws.
The Mississippi Ethics Commission is given the authority to deal with open meetings/ records complaints. Extensive information is available on its website: www.ethics.state.ms .us/ethics/ethics.nsf/webpage/A_meetings
Charlie Mitchell, whose weekly column is published in the Daily Journal, is assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi, a lawyer and a former newspaper editor. He wrote in a signed editorial in the Mississippi Business Journal:
“The Mississippi Ethics Commission, a state-appointed board with a very limited budget, has been given the job of helping people get answers to their questions about what records and meetings must be open and which may be closed. A simple form is available on the commission’s website. The panel investigates and answers.
“(Many people) have been working to strengthen the state’s laws and to clarify them where needed. It’s an ongoing, never-ending process to combat what seems to be a natural tendency of some in power to favor secrecy.
“But the law says what it says. It says you, as a citizen, are entitled to be informed about your government and to see its processes in action. The Ethics Commission is providing tools to help citizens become or remain informed.”
Open government protects individual citizens, businesses, agencies and institutions, ensuring fair and open dealings in which the public has an interest.
Thank legislators who voted for the law, and call it to the attention of any public official who tries to close doors and pull shades.