By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – Sirens, blue lights, car pulls to curb. Driver, passenger pulled out, handcuffed, taken to jail. From their car, weapons and bank bags full of cash are gathered, sent to the evidence room.
Case file sent to DA, grand jury indicts, trial jury says “guilty,” judge pounds gavel, looks up sentence and based on what he reads, the bank is fined $100 and the robbers are sent home with the sacks of cash.
A peculiar ending?
Maybe. But it’s exactly what would happen if Mississippi’s armed robbery law matched its open meetings law.
From time to time since 1975, the Legislature has had sporadic “feel-good” moments and spread a smidgen of sunshine over state and local government operations. When lawmakers do this, they endorse the concept that an informed electorate is essential in a democracy. The Open Meetings Act says, in a nutshell, that except for certain fairly specific topics, the public’s business must be conducted in public.
The act’s scope includes pretty much every state or local board or commission that makes rules people must obey or spends money extracted from people through taxes or fees. Also, not only do people have a right to know what governing bodies have done, we also have a right to sit in on the discussion and listen to the competing viewpoints and various considerations. It’s really important, sometimes, to know not just how an official voted, but why.
Another “great moment in good government” came just a few years ago when the Legislature empowered the Mississippi Ethics Commission to be the arbiter of what constitutes a violation of either the Open Meetings Act or its cousin, the Open Records Act.
The commission, under the leadership of Executive Director Tom Hood, has done more to improve government accountability in the past three years than had been done in any period since the state was created in 1817.
Before this responsibility was given to the commission, a citizen who was denied access to a meeting or a record had one option: sue in court. That was a lengthy and expensive proposition. Only larger media companies bothered, and did so very selectively.
But since Ethics has been given oversight, Hood and Company have (1) adopted model rules for agencies that want to comply with the law (and most do), (2) conducted clinics on compliance and (3) created an easy-greasy complaint form and put it right up on the Internet so that any person can get a ruling on whether there’s been a violation a lot faster and, even more importantly, free.
Another plus is the growing online database of rulings. The rulings can be consulted at any time by any attorney for any public body. In turn, the lawyers can use the rulings (akin to attorney general’s opinions) to learn the ins and outs of “staying legal” in the arena of openness.
If they want to.
The problem is when they don’t.
When the Ethics Commission decides the open meetings law has been broken, it has the same power as the sentencing judge in our silly bank robbery example. Specifically, violators are sent on their merry way and the victims (the public) can be fined $100.
This year, as it has in past years, the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information (of which I am an unpaid board member), the Mississippi Press Association (of which I was formerly an unpaid board member) and perhaps other groups will again ask the Legislature to ratchet up its courage in favor of “sunshine.”
If past is prologue, a bill to add significant punishment – a personal fine for flagrant violations or voiding actions taken in illegally closed sessions – will swim along in the legislative stream only to be dashed against the rocks of a committee chairman who doubles as attorney for his local elected officials.
Everybody talks a good game when it comes to openness, with “talks” being the operative word. But it comes down to this: There’s no more reason for recalcitrant boards and agencies – and there are lots of them – to see the light than there would be for our robbers to stop robbing banks. The only risk is a smidge of embarrassment if caught on the wrong side of the law.
Members of the Legislature don’t get a lot of respect, but most really do want good government and accountability at all levels. The trick is for them to hear from people who tell them the existing open meetings and records laws need better enforcement provisions.
Eventually, members and the leadership will rise up and end run the few who quietly perpetuate too much secrecy in Mississippi.
The question is whether this is the year.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.