House OKs open meetings penalty change

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Both chambers of the Legislature have now passed proposals that would make the individual officeholder, not the taxpayer, responsible for the penalty stemming from violations of the state’s open meetings and open records laws.
Under current law, the governing entity, not the politician, pays the penalty for any such violations.
The House passed its version of the open government proposal – called the Meetings Accountability Act – without a dissenting vote Tuesday.
Earlier this session, the Senate passed similar legislation.
At this point, one chamber will have to accept the other’s version of the legislation or leaders will have to meet to work out the differences.
Proponents of the change say politicians will be more apt to follow the law if they can be penalized personally for violating it.
Last year similar legislation died in the House because Judiciary A Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, expressed concern for fining a public official from a small governmental entity that violated the public meetings law through an oversight rather than through malice.
But Blackmon said he agreed to bring up the legislation this year because there is so much interest in it. As a compromise, he said, the first offense would be $500 rather than $1,000. The second offense would be $1,000.
The Senate bill would make the penalty a maximum of $1,000 for the first offense.
Under current law, the penalty is $100 and the governmental entity pays it. Both chambers clarify that the penalty for violating the open records law is $100 per incident.
Plus, the public official also could be responsible for reasonable attorneys’ fees. The Ethics Commission would rule on open records and meetings complaints, though either side could appeal to the chancery court.
On Tuesday, the House also passed legislation to require rural water districts to adhere to the open meetings and records laws.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.