Gov’t at its best when open

Published 6:34 pm Saturday, March 19, 2016

The past few days have been known as “Sunshine Week” in the journalism world.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.

We’ve published several editorials about the importance of an open government. But unfortunately, the public doesn’t always know what is public record and what isn’t. Except for a few exceptions, anything produced in the carrying out of government duties is public record.

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According to the state’s Public Records Act, that means “all books, records, papers, accounts, letters, maps, photographs, films, cards, tapes, recordings or reproductions thereof, and any other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, having been used, being in use, or prepared, possessed or retained for use in the conduct, transaction or performance of any business, transaction, work, duty or function of any public body, or required to be maintained by any public body.”

Though it’s not spelled out, it also includes emails sent on official email accounts. And every public body is subject to the Public Records Act. That includes school boards, city boards, county boards, etc. If it’s a government agency or a part of the government in any way, it’s a public body.

And anyone can request to see any documents produced by those bodies. There are a few exceptions — some personnel records, some law enforcement records, hospital records, jury records, among others.

The state’s Open Meetings Act seeks to keep government from working in the dark as well. It requires that all public bodies have their meetings in plain view of the public. Again, there are exceptions, and we see those put to use regularly.

Just about all local public bodies use executive sessions to handle matters that are exempted by state law. Those are personnel matters, some economic development matters, some education matters, among others. Granted, state law doesn’t require any public body to discuss those protected items in closed session, it merely allows it.

Too often public bodies use executive session to discuss things they simply don’t want aired publicly. But that’s not what the law allows. Hiding behind executive session is a disservice to the public, and only serves to keep the public in the dark.

Government is at its best when the public knows exactly what’s going on. We encourage all local public bodies to follow not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law as well.

The law is pretty clear on this one: “It being essential to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government and to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner, and that citizens be advised of and be aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the State of Mississippi that the formation and determination of public policy is public business and shall be conducted at open meetings except as otherwise provided herein.”