Open meetings law needs enforcement

Published 6:00 am Monday, March 4, 2002

The Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information reported lastweek that many elected officials are calling their statelegislators and asking them to vote against the Open MeetingsEnforcement Bill, or Senate Bill 2965.

What’s got the elected officials riled, evidently, is a changeto the original bill that makes individual officials — not thepublic entity — liable when a government board meets behind closeddoors in violation of state laws. The change was made on a motionby Rep. Greg Snowden of Meridian, who said taxpayers should nothave to pay when public officials make mistakes.

That logic might just be the blizzard of all political ‘snowjobs.’

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As freedom of information center officials point out, taxpayersalways have to pay for public officials’ mistakes.

Local officials do not want to be held individually liablebecause that means the $100 fine and attorney fees would come outof their own pockets. Chances are the new language was added to thebill in an effort to kill it.

Some other public officials are also trying to doom the billsimply by saying it is not needed. They are wrong, and here’swhy:

A recent report compiled by the Mississippi Center for Freedomof Information showed that compliance with the open meetings lawvaries among public boards throughout the state. Officials fromBrookhaven to Carthage to Tupelo have told journalists and citizensthat they can close meetings whenever they choose to do so. And,unfortunately, they do, because they know they can get away with itunder the current state law, which lacks an enforcementprovision.

Mississippi needs to add enforcement language to its openmeetings law to make the public entity, not the individual, liable.Thirty-three other states already have enforcement methods in placefor their open meetings rules. Why can’t Mississippi?

Citizens need to know — and deserve to know — what their localboards are doing. The public’s business must be conducted in publicto ensure that boards are accountable to the taxpayers.

Citizens also need to know that when boards retreat behindclosed doors for secret meetings, they can also be held accountablefor their actions.