EDITORIAL: What are they doing?

By NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippians’ right to transparency in government remains clouded because open meetings and open records laws are too often bent, broken, ignored or unduly hindered by public officials, boards, committees and commissions.
We support the Associated Press and the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information in their joint effort to strengthen transparency laws and to diminish what AP reporter Emily Wagster Pettus correctly describes as a “culture of secrecy” statewide.
Mississippi – perhaps because our state government in the era of segregation officially spied on citizens whom it suspected of being integrationists or others it considered subversive – often seems officially obsessed with keeping under wraps the people’s business.
All business conducted by state, county and city governments and all their subdivisions, such as authorities, commissions and committees, is the people’s business.
So, why delay or hassle people who seek obviously routine information like the location of voting precincts, who’s been arrested for breaking the law, and legal transactions like contracts involving spending public funds?
Existing open meetings and open records statutes allow exemptions to protect necessarily confidential information, but some boards hide illegally behind those exceptions and discuss – and even act – on other business. It’s against the law.
Even more disturbing, fines on public officials for holding illegal meetings are paid by – you guessed it – taxpayers. That means taxpayers are funding illegal meetings and funding fines on public officials for holding illegal meetings. That’s ridiculous.
Violations require consequences.
Mississippi Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Hood said he and his agency stress to public officials that they should operate directly and openly with the public. The public is every citizen, each of whom has the right to see, hear and know.
Ignorance of the law never should be an excuse cited by public officials. One of the requirements for taking the oath of office should be completion of an intensive course on open meetings and open records.
Many citizens and almost every reporter can cite instances in which public officials and even attorneys have muttered something about the legality of discussing an issue in executive session, sometimes with reporters or citizens reading contradictory specifics of the law to them.
Official Mississippi must change its ways by simply obeying the law.