BOBBY HARRISON: A rare lapse in openness

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The Mississippi Legislature, which writes the laws, exempts itself from the state’s open meetings law.
The Legislature does this even though it chose to make “the legislative declaration” at the start of the opening meeting law that “being essential to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government and to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner, and that citizens be advised of and be aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the state of Mississippi that the formation and determination of public policy is public business and shall be conducted at open meetings except as otherwise provided herein.”
One of those “otherwise provided herein” is the Mississippi Legislature, which exempts itself from the law. Despite that exemption, the Legislature makes its clear in its declaration that it believes open government is important.
In its governing rules, the House and Senate state that their business is expected to be conducted in the open unless in rare instances when the members opt to go into executive session. I have only seen members move to go into executive session once in the 18 sessions that I have covered. That was done by a House committee looking into a law enforcement investigation of an individual.
The Senate rules state that the Senate should conduct business in open session. Since the various committees adopt the Senate rules as their governing authority, one would presume that applies to those committees as well.
It has always been the practice for committees to meet in the open. Plus the rules state explicitly that the chair shall publicly announce the meetings.
In addition, there is the constitutional provision that “the doors of each house when in session … shall be kept open except in cases which may require secrecy.”
It is clear from various sources that it is the intent of the Legislature to conduct its business in the full, bright light of sunshine.
And to be honest, the Mississippi Legislature, through a series of leaders, has been the most open governing entity I have covered for the most part.
But here is an example of how the Mississippi open meetings law works.
In 2009, the state Ethics Commission, which is charged with enforcing the open meetings law, found that then-Transportation Commissioners Bill Minor of Holly Springs and Wayne Brown of Lucedale violated the law when they ate dinner with some Madison County officials and discussed a proposed interchange in that county.
The third commissioner, Dick Hall of Madison, was not at the meeting and filed the open meetings complaint. The Ethics Commission found that, since a quorum of the three-member Transportation Commission was at the dinner and discussed official business, that indeed a violation occurred.
The late Minor had vowed to appeal the decision, but decided not to when he realized that the longer the issue stayed in the news the more bad press he got.
Earlier this week Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, held a meeting with that chamber’s Education Committee where charter school legislation was discussed.
The meeting was held behind closed doors and not announced by the chair.
A spokeswoman for Reeves said essentially the lieutenant governor could meet with senators in his office whenever he wanted. It sounded as if the lieutenant governor might meet again with a full committee to discuss legislation.
No one has ever questioned that authority to meet behind closed doors with legislators to discuss strategy.
Based on what happened to Minor and Brown, though, if the Legislature did not exempt itself from the open meetings law, then more than likely the authority to meet with a full committee to discuss pending legislation would be questioned.
But since the Legislature did exempt itself and since the Legislature’s rules are governed by the membership, what is an open meeting is essentially in the eye of the leadership or what the members will tolerate of the leadership.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or (601) 353-3119.