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Openness ‘sun’ shines brighter under new laws

Current weather conditions aside, the sunis shining a little brighter today in Mississippi.

    That is because, as of Friday, two new laws are allowing the “sun”of openness to better illuminate the goings-on of local and stategovernments.

    One new law that garnered much attention as the bill was beingdebated during this year’s legislative session addressed openmeetings and public record access.

    Now, public officials who illegally close meetings that should beopen to the public can be held personally responsible for payingfines of $500 to $1,000. Previously, taxpayers were on the hook forpaying the fines, as they were allowed to be paid out of publiccoffers.

    Also, denying someone access to a public record now can cost anofficial $100 per incident. Under the old law, the fine was thesame, but the per-incident aspect was not spelled out.

    Another new law that perhaps did not get as much attention earlierthis year now requires the state Department of Finance andAdministration to post agencies’ budget information on publicwebsites. State universities and junior colleges have until nextJuly to take similar action.

    In today’s modern times, the online budget information accessshould be particularly helpful to citizens interested in seeingwhere their tax dollars or other supporting revenue are beingspent. Previously, having to file public records requests to seehard copies of such data was a great deterrent to suchinterest.

    Last year, lawmakers wisely cut in half the wait time officials hadfor responding to public records requests.

    With the online access aspect now in place, the response time – atleast for some information related to state agencies – can bealmost instantaneous. Some municipal and county leaders on thelocal level across the state have moved to provide similar speedyaccess to local records online, but access aspects are notuniversal and more work needs to be done in that regard.

    Still, Friday’s implementation of new laws represents a great stepforward in the areas of access to public meetings and records andto seeing how public monies are being spent. And with more opengovernment, better government should surely follow.