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Mitchell: Victory for Mississippi Open Meetings Law

It took a year, but Tommy Williams got an answer: He was right.

Mississippi_New_State_Capitol_Building_in_JacksonIn the view of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors was not acting legally when members broke into small groups to strategize about an upcoming bond issue.

The Meridian Star quoted Williams — a resident of the Marian community — as saying he believed the supervisors just didn’t want voters to know about the $14 million loan to which they were about to sign the public’s name. He figured the idea was to lock out or at least limit public conversation about the additional debt for recreational programs and other uses.

Why else would supervisors go to all the trouble of separate “mini-meetings” except to avoid a quorum and an official, public session?

Mississippi — which could use about 2,999,999 additional citizens with the pluck of Tommy Williams — has a very good open meetings law.

It’s not perfect. There’s a lot of room for improvement.

But the lengths to which some officials go to defeat the spirit of the law knows no bounds.

A few years back, a major step forward was taken when the Legislature tasked the Ethics Commission with reviewing questions about whether boards and commissions under the law were obeying it.

The commission’s website (www.ethics.state.ms.us) has a complaint form any citizen can complete and submit. There’s no charge, which is a big advancement from the day when any aggrieved person faced hiring a lawyer and getting on the docket of an already-too-busy chancery judge to hear the case and issue a ruling.

Even better, the commission also stockpiles its responses to questions on public meetings and public records on its website. Again, any person may go to the site and see dozens of scenarios and dozens of interpretations.

Browse them and it’s clear that the commission is serving as a resource for “healthy” public servants who are trying their best to walk the line between protecting legally confidential personal information and disclosing all material to which the public is entitled.

But it becomes equally clear that many local governments as well as local and state boards and agencies have no interest in openness. They consider the public a nuisance, forgetting who elected them and who antes up the cash with which they operate. They routinely ignore the Ethics Commission, which is OK. The commission’s only real power is to shame, and some boards know no shame.

Clearly, the commission needs to move more quickly. The Meridian newspaper reported it took Williams almost a year to get an answer, but the non-meeting meetings about the bond issue were almost two years ago – in March 2013. The delay is not explained.

Clearly, the commission needs more authority. No fines of any type were imposed. (The maximum would have been $1,000.) The attorney for the Lauderdale board, Lee Thaggard, is reported to have said he will ask his employers to file an appeal, although what would be appealed is not clear. Certainly, it wouldn’t change anything as to the bond issue. (Do note, however, that in a few other states, actions taken in or as a result of illegal meetings are void. Under that approach, the Lauderdale supervisors – not the taxpayers – would be responsible to repay the $14 million plus interest.)

There’s no reason to think that what took place in Lauderdale County or in many of the other situations involved criminality of any type. These are not situations where, for the most part, officials are taking bribes, rigging bids or anything. Indeed, many supervisors and other public servants are simply seeking efficiency. They want to get projects done with as little muss and fuss as possible.

Their problem is that communism is efficient. Totalitarianism is efficient. Monarchies are efficient. But democracy is a grind. When the “juice” to govern comes from the consent of the people to be governed, then the public has to be involved and the public — as fickle and problematic as we can be — is to be informed. Locking people out is like having them vote by drawing names from a hat and hoping the best candidate wins.

One last thing: Not sure whether Lauderdale County has chosen its “Person Of The Year.” But there’s a great nominee. Tommy Williams. He felt like the people ought to be included in the conversation, and he learned how to at least try to make sure — next time — they might be.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist and assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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