EDITORIAL: Open, then shut

By NEMS Daily Journal

You wouldn’t know it by the way some public bodies do business, but it’s the official policy of the state of Mississippi – not to mention the law – that public business be discussed in the open.
The preamble to the state Open Meetings Act even describes openness in government deliberations as “essential to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government and to the maintenance of a democratic society.”
The open meetings law provides a limited list of specific exceptions for which public bodies may go into closed session, and the courts through the years have generally interpreted those exceptions narrowly.
On paper, Mississippi’s open meetings law is reasonably good as such laws go. The problem has been no effective enforcement mechanism, especially if those challenging a public body didn’t have the resources to go to court.
Two years ago the Legislature strengthened enforcement by giving the state Ethics Commission authority to receive and investigate complaints about open meetings violations.
But the penalty for violation was still minimal – a $100 fine – and of little deterrence to violators. On top of that, public officials who violated the law could pay their fine out of the public treasury.
Legislation this year that would have raised the fine to a maximum of $1,000 and forced the individuals involved, not the taxpayers, to pay for violation of the open meetings law, passed the Senate. The rationale was simple: Why, if a public body ignored a law requiring it to conduct the public’s business in the open, should the public be stuck with the bill for the violation?
When the legislation got to the House Judiciary A Committee, the public-official-pays-the-fine provision was removed, but an amendment on the House floor reinstated it. That was apparently too much for Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, the committee chairman, who responded by killing it through a parliamentary maneuver.
So, as happens in the legislative process, one committee chairman thwarted the will of both House and Senate majorities. And in Blackmon’s case, he happens to be an attorney for the governing municipal body in his hometown.
The argument against public officials paying their own fines for violating open meetings is essentially that they shouldn’t have to pay if they’re ignorant of the law. That’s hardly an excuse.
Most public officials want to do what is right and abide by the law. Those who willfully conceal their conduct of the taxpayers’ business shouldn’t be bailed out by the taxpayer. Blackmon’s heavy-handed action is a slap in the face to all citizens who have a right to expect their elected officials to follow the law.