EDITORIAL: Open meetings

By NEMS Daily Journal

The Legislature appears to be easily within reach of strengthening Mississippi’s open meetings law by raising the fine for violations by public officials – and requiring officials in violation to personally pay the fine rather than using money from taxpayers.
The House and Senate both have approved bills that would require an individual officeholder to pay fines, an almost certain way to make elected and appointed officials covered under provisions of the Open Meetings Act to think twice before violating the law.
The Senate version of the strengthened law would make the fine a maximum of $1,000 for the first offense. The House version would be $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for a second.
Both chambers could accept the other’s version, or the bill could go to a conference committee. The House passed its version on Tuesday without dissent, and the Senate acted earlier.
The open meetings law provides a broadly defined guarantee that citizens – not just the news media – can see how they’re being governed (including appointive bodies) and how they carry out their missions under law.
Several exceptions to the general open meetings rule protect sensitive information and certain deliberations.
In 2010, similar legislation died in the House because Judiciary A Committee Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, had concerns about fining public officials for inadvertent violations.
People who are elected or serve in official appointive posts should know the law governing open meetings. It should be basic knowledge. Pleading ignorance is not a valid defense.
The independent Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information offers a summary of the law: www.mcfoi.org/handbook/open.html.
“What entities are covered?
“Any state, county, or local executive or administrative board, commission, authority, council, department, agency, bureau, or any other policy-making entity, or a committee thereof, which is supported wholly or in part by public funds, or expends public funds, as well as any standing, interim or special committee of the State Legislature …”
“What types of meetings are covered?
“Any ‘assemblage of members of a public body at which official acts may be taken upon a matter over which the public body has supervision, control jurisdiction, or advisory power,’” including informal meetings, lunch meetings with discussions, work sessions and joint meetings.
We encourage the Legislature to seize the opportunity to strengthen government transparency and give the bill final approval.