Openness law major step for improved government

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, February 27, 2011

While press and media outlets cheered Gov. Haley Barbour’sThursday signing of a bill to strengthen Mississippi’s openmeetings and records law, everyday citizens were the ones with realcause for celebration.

Under the newly signed law, individual officials could face finesof $500 to $1,000 for improperly closing meetings that should beopen to the public. The great difference as opposed to current lawis that the new rules hold the individual official responsible forpaying the fine – instead of having that money come from the publicbody itself.

Also in the law, a person could be charged $100 per incident forimproperly denying someone access to public records. Theper-incident clause is the distinguishing part of the newlaw.

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The new law takes effect July 1.

It must be acknowledged that many government entities in the statetruly endeavor to conduct their business in an upfront, forthrightand open manner as the state constitution intended.

Unfortunately, there remain far too many who take a cavalierattitude toward government openness and see their activities asnobody’s business but their own. The increased fines and stifferpenalties target these government officials, who hopefully will nowhave reason to pause before illegally closing a meeting andshutting out the public.

In many cases, the “public” at the meeting may only be the localnewspaper reporter or one or two citizens with a specific interestin a meeting agenda item.

Contrary to any sentiment that open meetings and records laws areonly “newspaper issues,” this year’s action by lawmakers and thegovernor will help all members of the public.

Certainly, news and other media outlets have more day-to-dayinvolvement with government officials and their meetings, so thenew rules will help reporters in that regard.

But members of the general public have the same powers as the presswhen it comes to challenging the illegal closure of a publicmeeting. The state Ethics Commission stands ready to help citizensin that quest.

Furthermore, citizens who simply want to be kept better abreast oftheir local government’s activities and goings-on will benefit fromthe increased openness the law intends to provide. This benefitwill not come as directly as it will for press representatives orcitizens looking to take on city hall, but it is importantnonetheless.

It is coincidental that the bill strengthening open meetings andrecords laws was signed during a week in which many Mississippinewspapers were running stories and editorials highlighting theneed to address government secrecy in the state.

More work on behalf of openness remains to be done and the mindsetof government officials bent on keeping the public in the dark mustchange. Nevertheless, the new law is a major step in the rightdirection toward better government and boosting citizeninvolvement.