Openness in govt. important for all members of public

Published 5:05 pm Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When it comes to talk of public records and open meetings, somecitizens turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to what many considerlittle more than a “newspaper issue” or a “reporter’s problem.”

That position is understandable to a point – until the taxpayerwith a problem with government gets kicked out of a supposed-to-beopen meeting. Or has their request to view or obtain board meetingminutes or other public records take seemingly forever to begranted or in some cases ignored altogether.

Then the issue becomes, as they say, personal and hits close tohome. Yet rebuffed individuals are too often left feeling powerlessto do anything about the treatment they received and with that theold feeling of “you can’t fight city hall.”

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Situations like these are why organizations like the MississippiPress Association, the Mississippi Center for Freedom ofInformation and newspapers across the state are so vehement inpursuit of stronger open meetings and public records laws.

Newspaper reporters are often on the front lines of the battlefor government openness, but any citizen could at some point feel aneed to draft themselves into a conflict over a matter important tothem.

When this happens, there should be no need to “fight city hall.”Instead, “city hall” – or county governments, school boards and allpublic entities for that matter – should readily surrender whateverpublic documents are sought or be eager to welcome citizens into anopen meeting to hear public discourse on important topics of theday.

The concept of easily accessible public records and openmeetings sounds simple, but the reality of the situation is that itis far from it.

Starting today, a series of stories compiled by the AssociatedPress in conjunction with the Mississippi Press Association andMCFOI highlights problems across the state regarding openness ingovernment.

The series looks at challenges some citizens have faced in theirpursuit of various government documents, problems with secrecyinvolving public meetings and, in a nod to today’s technologicalage, agencies’ efforts to make information available via theInternet. Also included is a story on government entities that goout of their way to “get it right” when it comes to public recordsand open meetings.

A number of bills have been introduced during this year’slegislative session to strengthen Mississippi open meetings andpublic records laws. Provisions in the various pieces oflegislation would hold government officials individuallyresponsible for open meetings violations, increase the penalty forpublic records violations, and one measure calls for the removalfrom office of those with repeated violations.

While some government entities understand their role as servantsof the taxpayers and that they operate on the public’s dime and actaccordingly, others unfortunately do not.

Shedding light on problems and crafting stronger enforcementlaws are the way to ensure that the public’s business is conductedin public as it should be – for all members of the public.