City, county can both improve transparency
Credit where credit is due: Oxford and Lafayette County are less protective of information that the public should have than several of the governments I’ve covered over the years.
But both entities – especially the county – have room for improvement.
One thing Oxford does particularly well is following the prescribed process, shepherded by City
Attorney Pope Mallette, to take a meeting of the Board of Aldermen into executive session, which state law allows for discussion of individual employees, litigation and real estate. When the discussion ends, Mallette announces the meeting reopened before any votes are taken.
The Lafayette County Board of Supervisors moves into a different room for those discussions, and they have been known to forget to reconvene in their boardroom. County Attorney David O’Donnell has improved that in the past few months.
Oxford has a reasonably informative website, www.oxfordms.net. It gives a host of department heads and their contact information, city ordinances, usually any draft ordinances under consideration, listings and contact information for city boards and commissions. It even lists regular meeting times for each commission and its latest agenda, along with sign-up for agendas by email.
On the other hand, the calendar on the city website’s front page is often incomplete regarding the meetings of those boards and commissions. Sometimes it’s just plain wrong. (That’s not a slam against the webmaster; calendars require the cooperation of many people.)
The county’s website is much less helpful. While it has departmental contact information and county regulations, and one can even find the Board of Supervisors agendas if he’s persistent enough, there’s an ocean of unincluded information that it should have. The route to most of what is there is anything but user-friendly. Planning Commission agendas aren’t available online, and neither is any of the supporting information; those should be easily accessible.
When there’s a special called meeting of the Board of Supervisors, there’s no ready mechanism to get an agenda or even an electronic notice: The county meets the letter of the law by posting a paper notice in the lobby of the Chancery Building, but with countless means of instant communication, it is unimaginable why such notice is not readily available to anyone who wants it.
To their credit, Lafayette County supervisors recognize many of the lacks in the county’s online presence and have said in budget work sessions that they intend to invest in a quality website in FY2015.
The easiest, cheapest and quickest way for any major board or commission of either Lafayette County or the City of Oxford to increase its transparency would be to use its microphones well. Oxford’s Board of Aldermen, Planning Commission and two historic preservation commissions all hold their meetings in the courtroom/boardroom of City Hall, where acoustics are difficult at best, so there’s no excuse not to use mikes.
Lafayette County’s Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission both meet in the boardroom of the Chancery Building, where the acoustics are quite good, but Johnson and O’Donnell have voices that do not carry well, and pairs of supervisors have far too many private conversations – presumably about the county’s business – during their meetings.
Bottom line? By web and in person, the people deserve all the information to which they’re legally entitled, in as convenient and accessible a form as is practical.
Errol Castens is a news reporter and columnist for the Oxford Citizen and the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 816-1282 or email@example.com.