Mechanisms needed to put teeth into state Open Meetings Law

Published 1:25 pm Monday, March 8, 2010

Ed Blackmon’s logic escapes us.

The state representative from Canton maintains that hisjudiciary committee’s action to alter a bill regardingMississippi’s Open Meetings Law makes the measure stronger and notweaker. We find that questionable.

As it passed the Senate, SB 2373 allowed a chancery judge or thestate Ethics Commission to void action taken by a government bodyduring an illegally closed meeting. The measure also put theresponsibility for paying a $100 fine for violation of the law onoffending government officials – instead of having the money comefrom public coffers supported by the taxpaying citizens theyrepresent.

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Blackmon’s House committee this past week stripped thenullification provision. It also raised the fine for violation ofthe meetings law, but absolved public officials from having to paythe fine personally.

During debate Thursday, Blackmon’s fellow House members restoredthe provision to hold public officials personally responsible forpaying the fine – a much-needed move to combat the weakenedlegislation.

The modified bill was approved Thursday by the full House, butwas held on a motion to reconsider and could die if there is noaction by a March 11 deadline. If acted upon again by the House,the changed measure would go back to the Senate for concurrence orconference.

Blackmon’s committee did increase the fine for violation of thelaw from $100 to $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for secondand subsequent offenses.

That sounds great as a bigger deterrent to keep public officialsfrom illegally closing public meetings. There’s just one littleproblem.

Without the provision holding officials personally responsiblefor paying the fine, that would mean more money coming out of anagency or entity’s publicly supported budget.

Blackmon defended the committee action by saying officials inmany small towns are not paid a lot and may not have access tolegal advice and the panel, therefore, did not want to put an”unfair financial burden” on them. Small town or large city, itsounds like Blackmon’s trying to protect the pocketbooks of hisfellow elected officials and not those of the people who put themin office.

No personal responsibility breeds disregard and contempt for thelaw. Why should public officials worry about the law if they do nothave to pay the penalty for breaking it?

Blackmon also seems to be OK with letting boards do whateverthey want in secret and then letting them get away with it. Thatwould be the result without the provision to allow a judge orEthics Commission to undo what was done in the illegal secretmeeting.

Blackmon went on to say he favors more training for publicofficials on the reasons they may legally close a meeting. Statelaw allows for certain discussion – most notably specific personnelmatters, legal strategy deliberations and potential land purchases- to be held in executive session if the board chooses.

The idea of public officials getting more training on and beingmore familiar with open meetings laws is certainly a good one. Butthe point here should not be how to close meetings, but rather whatmore can be done to keep them open.

One way is to do that is to enact strong fines that hold willfullaw-breakers personally responsible for their actions. Another isto have a mechanism for undoing what was done in an illegallyclosed meeting.

As it stands now, neither of those options is possible. Andthat’s an unfortunate comment on the state of openness ingovernment in Mississippi in 2010.