Sen. Jason Barrett: ‘Transparency is the best policy’ in response to Mississippi Ethics Commission ruling
Published 9:51 am Thursday, December 15, 2022
JACKSON — Mississippi’s Ethics Commission officially determined the Mississippi State Legislature is not a public body under the Open Meetings Act. Mississippi Free Press and Mississippi Center for Justice pledged to appeal the decision Wednesday morning.
Mississippi’s constitution considers the legislature a public body according to section 58 which says, “The doors of each House, when in session, or in committee of the whole, shall be kept open, except in cases which may require secrecy; and each House may punish, by fine and imprisonment, any person not a member who shall be guilty of disrespect to the House by any disorderly or contemptuous behavior in its presence, or who shall in any way disturb its deliberations during the session; but such imprisonment shall not extend beyond the final adjournment of that session.”
Mississippi’s Open Meeting Act states that public business should be performed in an open and public manner as the determination and formation of public policy should be public business. It is important to note that legislative subcommittees and legislative conference committees are exempt from the Open Meeting Act.
Lincoln County state senator Jason Barrett, who also serves Copiah, Walthall and Lawerence Counties, said the decision will be something for the courts to decide Thursday morning. He added his campaign for the state senate was built on the tenants of transparency and public business should be done in the open.
“I believe transparency increases credibility, accountability and trust. They are vital for good government by public servants,” Barrett said. “I think everyone should know what is going on. I would hope everyone would think transparency is the best policy.”
Mississippi Free Press initially entered a complaint to the ethics committee to keep the Mississippi House of Representatives Republican Caucus from deliberating over legislation in secret. Out of 122 representatives in Jackson, 76 are Republicans. MFP reporter Nick Judin filed a complaint alleging he was blocked from a House of Representatives Republican Caucus meeting on March 14, 2022. Judin said in the ethics committee report that the Caucus is a “public body composed of a majority of legislators in the Mississippi House of Representatives who meet regularly to discuss and determine policy and law.” He informed people present he was there to attend as he felt the meeting fell under the Open Meetings Act but was denied access.
The question of the law in the case was whether or not the House of Representatives is a public body as defined in Section 25-41-3(a) Mississippi Code of 1972. Another question of law implied in the case was if the House Republican Caucus was a public body according to the commission’s documents.
Mississippi’s Ethics Commission determined the question of if the House of Representatives is a Public Body under the Open Meeting Act is a question of law within the authority of the ethics commission and the judicial branch.
The commission ruled the House of Representatives Republican Caucus is not a public body under the open meeting act.
“A legislative caucasus does not meet the criteria in the statutory definition. It is not executive or administrative in nature and is not an entity of the state created by law, nor supported by public funds nor is it a standing, interim or special committee of the Legislature. Consequently, the Caucus is not a public body and should not be a party to this case.”
It also ruled the House of Representatives is not a public body because Section 25-41-3(a) which refers to any policy making entity as being a public body could include the House of Representatives but was ambiguous on the particular issue.
An appeal will be filed in the Hinds County Chancery Court according to a joint press release by the MFP and MCJ.
Attempts to reach Lincoln County Representatives Becky Currie and Vince Mangold were unsuccessful Wednesday afternoon.