Article Comment 

Some officials strive for open government

 

Special to the Dispatch

 

TUPELO -- While much of Mississippi government is comfortably shrouded in secrecy, some public officials go out of their way to make meetings and records accessible to the public. 

 

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, for instance, champions governmental transparency by putting public records online, broadcasting public meetings and inviting citizens to the table. 

 

Other champions of sunshine government include Gulfport Police Chief Alan Weatherford, Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr., Holly Springs Mayor Andre'' DeBerry and state Rep. Joseph Warren, D-Mount Olive. 

 

Together, they''ve cracked open the door that sometimes separates politicians from the people who elected them. 

 

But it''s not always easy. Presley, elected in 2007, has faced heavy opposition from his colleagues in the state Public Service Commission in trying to broadcast the group''s regular meetings online. He won half the battle -- opening the meetings to citizens and broadcasting the public hearings -- but regular meetings still aren''t online. Presley''s critics say he''s quick to seek self-serving publicity. 

 

Presley calls the open meetings "a monumental shift on how the PSC does business." 

 

"Politicians -- me included -- spend a lot of time telling people what we''ll do if you elect us," the 32-year-old said. "Well, you ought to be able to see what we do when we''re in office. The public has a right to know." 

 

Presley also thinks utility cooperatives need more transparency and regulation, and he has led an effort to regulate and publicize their board elections and to force a full disclosure of their finances. 

 

It hasn''t been without controversy, though. And sometimes, Presley said, "it seems like you''re banging your head on the wall." 

 

Not everyone has met such resistance. Weatherford, who became Gulfport''s police chief in 2006, hasn''t heard any complaints about his efforts to meet residents or publicize crime trends. The chief and his officers visit different neighborhoods once weekly to meet people and hear their concerns. He also posts quarterly and annual crime summary reports online. 

 

And by early this year, Weatherford said, residents will be able to sign up for e-mail and text alerts notifying them instantly if crime happens in their areas. 

 

"There is no downside," the chief said. "I don''t see one reason why this shouldn''t be accessible to the citizens." 

 

Tupelo''s new mayor shares the same philosophy. One of his first actions upon taking office in mid 2009 was hiring the city''s first communications director and posting City Council agendas, minutes and videos online. 

 

Reed also has launched a municipal Facebook page and started posting short messages through the online service Twitter. 

 

But "among the most significant changes was the opening of the budget decision-making process to the press," Reed said, "because, really, that''s where the rubber meets the road as far as where taxpayer dollars are going." 

 

Even in smaller towns like Holly Springs, transparency is a key element in local government. Since DeBerry became mayor nine years ago, this city of roughly 8,000 residents has had more access to Town Hall. 

 

Meetings of the board of aldermen now air on a public-access channel, and each meeting opens with a public forum, DeBerry said. And though the town doesn''t yet have a municipal Web site, it did hire a technology director to move in that direction. 

 

"When there is a cloak of cover people tend to be suspicious," DeBerry said, explaining the moves. 

 

Warren, a south Mississippi legislator, wrote the bill that eventually was enacted into law as the Mississippi Accountability and Transparency Act of 2008. It requires the Department of Finance and Administration to post state-fund expenditure information online for the public.

 

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment Ampex commented at 1/31/2010 8:52:00 AM:

In this day and age all it takes to record a meeting in digital format is a laptop computer and microphone. All municipal and county boards that are truly interested in open government should be posting recordings of their meetings online. There really is no reason not to.

 

Article Comment Thom Geiger commented at 1/31/2010 8:03:00 PM:

That's just the problem, Amp. These local governments have hidden behind the "We don't know how to do that" and "It'd cost us too much money" arguments for too long. Money and/or lack of how-to knowledge are not the problem.
Every (and I do mean EVERY) request for a public document from the CMSD office has to be approved by the school board's attorney, who has threatened people who have wanted to post those PUBLIC documents on the Internet. The same with the city (Columbus).
Try it anywhere in Lowndes County, at any government office or department. Ask for a copy of that department or agency's budget and you will get it with the same three standard default questions every time;
"Who are you?"
"Why do you want it?"
"What are you going to do with it?"
Now, to me, that kind of mindset only comes from one place, that being somebody has something to hide (get that, local officials, it's a dead giveaway).
Roger Larsen, me, Hardy Crunk, Bobby Clardy, even reporters have been harassed and threatened with arrest for trying to record public meetings, get copies of public documents and get access to information that is supposed to be freely available to the public. This is the system of secrecy that allows the doors of voting precincts to be chained and locked when the polls close, removing the ballot boxes from public view, the same system that allows law enforcement to illegally arrest observers and reporters during the voting process (one of those arrests cost city taxpayers $10,000).
Working sessions where decisions are really being made, with only the formality of a vote in a public meeting left to deal with and the people's business is no longer open to the eyes of the people (sorry Birney, but replacing the people with the press is not an answer).
Who should be held accountable for the secrecy that has been, is now and apparently will always be with us? It is the actions and behavior of the mayor, city council, board of supervisors, department heads, city and county attorneys, city and county board attorneys, school district board members and their attorneys. Who are those people now? You can see their photographs on the wall at city hall, the wall of the court house, on the wall of the central school offices.
The secrecy society mindset crosses all age, race, gender and party lines. It is traditional and pervasive. Rare are the elected and appointed who have the will, the intestinal fortitude and the ethical and moral fiber to fight the urge, to fight the tradition, to fight the peer pressure to go along, who actually care about the right of the people to information that belongs to the people, the people's right to see what business is being done in their name, with their resources and perhaps more importantly, exactly who is doing what.

 

Article Comment Ben commented at 2/1/2010 9:43:00 AM:

Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information.

http://www.mcfoi.org/

Get the handbook and the law.

 

Article Comment walter commented at 2/1/2010 4:58:00 PM:

The more open, the more efficient and honest. Who, in his or her right mind, could object to that, especially when taxe dollars are dwindling and the money that is collected is expected to do more and more.

Anyone opposing open-government, anywhere in our country, is a fascist and unAmerican! Society should tar and feather them and run them out of the county, the state and the country. They should be followed by all those who insists upon placing their own personal interests, and those of their associates and benefactors, before the best interests of the citizens, those who voted for them, as well as those who voted for their opposition!

Real Americans would find no qualm with the preceding; Red-blooded Americans have already lost patience with those who have driven this nation into the mud and are beginning to demand that they change their ways or get the hell out of the way and allow real patriots to leave us back to our former glory and prosperity, regardless of the race, gender, etc., of those who would offer to lead.

ENOUGH, ALREADY! MISSISSIPPIANS ARE DECENT PEOPLE, BY AND LARGE; THEY'RE AS QUALIFIED AS ANY TO START THE MOVEMENT, AREN'T THEY?

 

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