Open meetings bill puts burden on officials

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Public officials, not the government, would pay fines for violating the state’s open meetings law, according to a bill that passed the Senate on Monday and now goes to Gov. Haley Barbour.
The Senate, without a dissenting vote, accepted changes made to its open meetings-open records bill by the House and sent it to the governor.
The bill originally passed the Senate with a $1,000 fine for public officials who violate the state’s open meetings law. Under the current law, the entity, such as the municipality or the county government, is responsible for paying the penalty.
The Senate passed legislation last year to shift the fine to the public official, but it died in the House. House Judiciary A Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said he was concerned that an official with a small governmental body would face a stiff fine for making an honest mistake.
This year Blackmon passed the legislation out of his Judiciary A Committee and on the floor of the House. But Blackmon changed the bill to make it a $500 fine per individual for the first offense and a $1,000 fine for the second offense.
For instance, a member of a board who is found to have voted in favor of illegally closing a meeting would face a $500 fine.
The Senate accepted Blackmon’s change Monday and sent the bill to the governor.
“This is a really good day for those who want transparency” in government, said Senate Ethics Chairman Merle Flowers, R-Southaven.
Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant also praised the legislation. “We wanted to send a good, strong message that government is open,” he said.
The bill, dubbed the Meetings Accountability Act, also clarifies 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.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.