CHARLIE MITCHELL: Progress on open meetings, records is hard to deny

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – Complaining about too little access to public information has been a lifelong pursuit for me. Still, I think a “D+” grade assigned to Mississippi by a national group is too low.
This state has plenty of good laws, plenty of verbal support for transparency at the highest levels of state government. The train jumps the track in a couple of areas, including enforcement and, frankly, interest by journalists and the public.
Take campaign finance records as one example.
For as long as there has been an Internet, Mississippi secretaries of state have placed the donation and spending reports of every candidate for every office online for anyone, anywhere to see.
There’s plenty of room to improve the reports themselves and how they can be found and searched. There’s no excuse for not making the improvements. But the reports are open to public view.
Yet how many local papers write stories about where candidates are getting their campaign funds? Not many. No local TV crew mines this type of information.
Much the same is true for the website seethespending.org. It’s a fairly new site operated by the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. It offers a wealth of information. Wonder how much your county spent on cell phones? (Grenada County spent $14,071.89 with AT&T Mobility in 2010.) The information is there, usually easy to locate.
The Mississippi Department of Health places restaurant inspection reports online. Granted, the information is skimpy, but it’s there. Type in the name of the town and the name of the restaurant and every inspection report can be examined. Too, with a click any citizen can file a report or complaint.
If incarceration is your thing, the photo and name of every person in prison in Mississippi is online, along with the term being served. People can sign up for email or text alerts when an inmate’s status is changed.
It was the Center for Public Integrity, a national group of investigative journalists, who scored Mississippi low. There is some comfort in Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama scoring lower (F), but there should have been greater appreciation of changes in Mississippi.
They have been in two areas.
First, oversight. Until three years ago, the only option for a person who felt wrongly closed out of a meeting or denied access to a record was a lawsuit. That was a lengthy process, expensive. Reluctant records custodians could take comfort in shooing people away, knowing that few, if any, would follow up to force compliance with state law, no matter how clear the law was.
The Legislature responded by tasking the Mississippi Ethics Commission with brokering open meetings and open records controversies. The panel does so efficiently, usually in response to a one-page form freely available to anyone on the Internet. Past decisions are available to serve as guidance and, perhaps, head off new complaints.
The second area is enforcement and accountability. In response, the Legislature has added fines payable by serious violators, not by their public employers. Fines will rarely be enforced, but their existence says officials need to take open government more seriously than, perhaps, they have in the past.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour found the media to be a useful tool when he could manipulate it to his purposes and a nuisance when he didn’t – as when being questioned on his pardon selections. Current Gov. Phil Bryant has been a consistent and ardent supporter of open government. He hasn’t been seriously tested yet, but has stood up to the old “courthouse crowd” a couple of times – telling them to be transparent even if it led to embarrassment. Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and his predecessor, Eric Clark, both worked to add sunshine to state operations.
Open government is not about serving reporters with stuff to write about. Open government is foundational to democracy as well as being an essential tool to fight waste, corruption, disenfranchisement and a litany of other sins governments – large or small – commit when they get too big for their britches.
No organization has been more savvy or effective in this realm than The Center for Public Integrity. It is an especially savvy and effective organization doing great service to the nation and doing it, of course, without any grants or earmarks.
But a “C?” Maybe a “C+?”
Not too long ago, Mississippi had a long, long way to go on open meetings and records. Now there’s just a long way to go. Give us a few more points, please.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.