Lawmakers close door to more government openness

Published 12:53 pm Monday, March 15, 2010

It is sadly ironic that a few days before the nation marksSunshine Week, an effort to promote government openness,Mississippi lawmakers killed a bill that could have opened the doorto more light shining on government activities in the state.

The House of Representatives, and more specifically Judiciary ACommittee Chairman Ed Blackmon, allowed an open meetings bill fromthe Senate to die Thursday under a legislative deadline. Themeasure was not perfect, but its death represents continuedlawmaker reticence toward more open government.

Blackmon was upset that the bill was amended on the House floor -and not during consideration by his committee – to hold publicofficials who knowingly violate open meetings laws personallyresponsible for paying the fines. Currently, funds to pay the finescome from the public coffers.

According to the Associated Press, the date for Blackmon’scommittee meeting to discuss the Senate bill was moved up and Rep.Greg Snowden, who has championed the open government effort, wasunable to attend. Snowden says Blackmon told him the open meetingsbill would not come up for discussion.

Snowden missed the meeting because he had agreed to be a guest on aJackson radio talk show. Whether Blackmon’s panel considered theopen government bill or whatever other matters, Snowden’s presenceat that meeting should have taken precedence over his getting someairtime on the radio.

Meeting date disputes aside, Mississippi’s open meetings law needsmore teeth.

The bill, as amended on the House floor, would have been adeterrent to closed meetings because officials would have been heldpersonally liable for fines.

Thanks to Blackmon’s committee removing the provision, what is doneduring an illegally closed meeting could not be undone. But had thebill not died, negotiations with the Senate could have restoredthat important bill item.

Activities during Sunshine Week, this year between March 14 and 20,are designed to promote better government through stronger openmeetings and public records laws. Apparently, some Mississippilawmakers are content to leave citizens in the dark on suchmatters.