LLOYD GRAY: Openness now transcends any political divides

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

When Mississippi’s political establishment first was confronted with a demand for open government in the mid-1970s, entrenched politicians from the Capitol to the courthouses vigorously resisted.
The reformers were intruding on their domain, and that was serious business. A political way of life – governmental secrecy undisturbed by a bothersome public or media presence – was under assault.
Some were sincerely concerned that too much scrutiny of the governmental decision-making process through opening up meetings and records would cause elected officials to play to the crowd to the detriment of good governance. But many feared the loss of power or perks, and some the ability to use public office for private gain. Others simply didn’t want the political inconvenience of having to conduct public business in public view.
The legislators and good government groups who pushed for open meetings and records laws were considered by conservative legislative leaders of the day to be pushing a liberal agenda. It was true that the cause was led primarily by younger, less conservative legislators in the wake of the Watergate scandal. But in those days, change of almost any kind was considered liberal by the keepers of the political status quo.
Today much of the pressure for increased governmental transparency at all levels of government comes from conservatives. Tea Party activists are among those most insistent on accountability through openness by government officials.
When the Mississippi Legislature recently strengthened the state’s open meetings law, conservative Republicans were among the strongest supporters.
And they should have been. The biggest change, after all, took the taxpayers off the hook for paying the fines of public officials who break the law. Now the officials themselves will have to pay out of their own pockets.
Not that the old law would exactly break the public treasury – $100 was the penalty for a violation – but it was the principle of the thing. Why should taxpayers foot the bill when a public body broke a law designed to guarantee public access to its proceedings?
Even so, it took a couple of years to get this bill passed, which is testimony to the still lingering resistance to openness and accountability in some governmental quarters.
In addition to shifting the penalty for violations of the law to the guilty public officials, the fine was increased to $500 for the first violation and $1,000 for the second. Knowing that it’s their responsibility to pay, that should be a helpful deterrent to public officials who might be looking for ways to keep their deliberations out of public view.
Not that the law demands complete transparency. Specific exemptions allow closed meetings for legitimate reasons, such as discussion of litigation or the sale of real estate or a personnel matter. But the exemptions are limited, and it’s the business of every public official to know what the law requires.
It’s a positive development that the issue of open meetings, and its close relative, open records, is no longer seen as a sign of political ideology. It’s always been a matter of good government, not conservative or liberal politics, based on the fundamental notion that effective governance in a democratic society depends on an informed and engaged citizenry.
The government is not the domain of elected officials; it belongs to the people who put them there. Citizens of all political stripes should be able to agree on that principle, just as politicians of all stripes have at times failed to adhere to it.
Most try their best these days to abide by the law, and in our area of the state, compliance is generally good. Mississippi’s law is balanced; it demands openness but doesn’t, as a few states do, prohibit private discussions among non-quorum gatherings of public bodies. Officials under our law have the flexibility of the occasional necessary confidential conversations.
The problem in Mississippi has not been so much the law itself but its enforcement and penalty provisions. The enforcement provision was strengthened in recent years by giving the state Ethics Commission the authority to investigate complaints of violations rather than someone having to take a public body to court. Now in this legislative session the penalties have been strengthened.
That’s progress, and the fact that it’s an election year and few in the Legislature wanted to run as opponents of open government shows just how mainstream an idea once considered troublemaking has become.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.