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Mitchell: Secrecy Supposed to Benefit People, not Shield Officials

Let’s say a Mississippi town is selecting a new police chief. Applications have been taken, finalists selected and the town council is holding a closed-door conversation about who should be offered the job.

Let’s say the stand-out applicant in terms of qualifications, experience and recommendations is black. Had a great interview, too. But let’s say a council member speaks up and says, “You know, we’ve already got a black fire chief; I think the police chief ought to be white.”

Now let’s suppose another council member is upset by the statement and mentions it in a phone call to state Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, a 22-year member of the Legislature.

Now Rep. Scott is also black, but any right-minded person should be alarmed that in 2015 any person of any race who is the most qualified applicant for any job gets turned away based completely on race.

So what does Rep. Scott do?

First, she thanks the council member for letting her know about the comment. She’s disappointed to hear this, too.

Next — if her House Bill 290 becomes law — she is obliged to tell the caller he or she owes a $25,000 fine for, as it were, spilling the beans.

Further, she’d tell the council member the fine doubles and redoubles depending on repeated disclosure of, as her bill says, “any information derived from an executive session of a public body.”

Even if the council member who made the racially charged statement later repeated the same statement in public, the fine would be due, according to the bill, because the statement was first made in secrecy.

Mind you, the Legislature only recently created a $500 fine for officials who egregiously violate the open meetings law. None have been imposed. But if Rep. Scott has her way, the first-offense fine for any tattle-telling or any type after a closed session is 50 times — 50 times! — greater.

It’s not known what put the bee in Rep. Scott’s bonnet about disclosure of closed session discussions.

But it is clear the bill represents a fundamental — a crucially fundamental — misunderstanding.

The open meetings statutes in Mississippi and most other states allow public boards and commissions to meet in closed session in specific situations.

In every one of those situations, in the public’s interest for the conversation to be closed. Closure is not to shield officials from accountability for what they say or do, even if it turns out they are embarrassed.

Let’s say our town council is being sued or buying land for a new fire station. In closed session, the officials agree that the town can afford a $500,000 offer. But their consultant says, “Let’s offer $400,000, first.” If the lower offer is accepted, then the public has been saved $100,000.

See? There’s no way the larger offer would have been accepted had the conversation about how much was available been public. That’s why the law allows closed or executive sessions. They can be beneficial to taxpayers.

It’s the same with the open records law. The public benefits from qualified doctors, dentists, CPAs, nurses, attorneys and airline pilots. That’s why any local, state or national tests administered to people seeking licensure are exempted from disclosure.

In this state and others, statutes — including the one Rep. Scott wants to amend — list in what types of normally public meetings can be paused, if you will, for private discussions.

There’s no way to read those justifications without understanding that each was written to confer benefit to the public and that not a single one was written to provide a hiding place for any official or group of officials who simply prefer secrecy, find the public annoying or are insecure about the public having knowledge of their discussions and decisions.

Not picking on Rep. Scott here. She’s far from alone in submitting legislation that would create greater distance between people in positions of public trust and the people who had enough sense to accept their leadership … but can’t be trusted to know what they’re doing. Other bills are pending. Some are from Democrats. Some are from Republicans. This is not a partisan topic.

Gov. Phil Bryant has consistently preached openness and so has Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Their statements indicate they understand open and accountable government is good and effective government. Officials have a lot less to fear from a public that feels clued in than a public that gets locked out.

Good thing, because it appears lawmakers intend to keep testing their resolve.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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