March 21, 2014 12:14:42 PM
Lynn Spruill -
What do we mean by Sunshine Week, anyway? Sunshine is refers to lighting up the inner workings of government. Who knew? In honor of this event, The Dispatch ran a column by Jeanni Atkins from the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information on the importance of government that is open and accountable to the people. The laws supposedly guaranteeing this ever so democratic feature are the Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act.
The article nicely covered the intent of the legislation from its inception as fostered by a founding father, James Madison, who admonished supporters of democracy to arm themselves with knowledge. Jeanni then continued with examples of the abuses and noted the service that news organizations provide by keeping government actions accountable. Unfortunately she saved her most powerful and accurate statements for the very end of the article.
Since I know a large majority of readers don't get to the end of articles, I am going to tell you what she said before you quit reading this because it is crucial. She said: "It is ultimately up to citizens to assert their rights and to make it clear to people in government that they must take their responsibility to keep citizens informed seriously and comply with the law. Citizens should stand up for their right to know." I will take it a step further: Our government representatives must not just follow the law, but should bend over backward to make sure that their residents know what they are discussing or taking action on.
I have a suggestion how to better effect that.
When I first became involved with Mississippi government I noticed that there were several people who came regularly to board of aldermen meetings. I didn't understand such a dedicated level of interest. I dismissed them as people who didn't have too much else to do and needed a good hobby or had a low threshold for quality entertainment. Now I know they were protecting their interests because they knew anytime the board sits down to a meeting it can do anything a majority quorum agrees to do. That can sometimes be as few as a three-person decision.
Why didn't I know that? I came into government service from Texas which I am sad to say is well ahead of Mississippi on several fronts when it comes to government operations and accountability. In Texas the law does not allow government bodies to change their agendas after they are posted without 72 hours of prior notice. The agenda for the meetings of a government body has to be set 72 hours ahead of time and has to state specifically what issues the body is going to take up. If it isn't on the agenda then they can't discuss it. If they discuss it or take action on it then any actions are voidable.
The agenda and potential actions that can be taken by your Mississippi local government representatives can be changed on the night of the meeting as well as at any time during the meeting. You are subject to the whims of a majority of a quorum without notice. Unless you stay until the meeting adjourns or recesses you might never know what actions your representatives took that will impact you.
This happens all the time. It is the rule rather than the exception. In Starkville the agenda is commonly revised after it is out on Friday before the Tuesday meeting. These revisions are often insignificant, but frequently they are substantive. Any number of times the board has amended the agenda at the table to handle matters that probably would have attracted some citizens to attend and voice their concerns had they known the subject was going to be discussed.
I suggest to my fellow citizens that we request that our representatives take a pledge not to add any subjects to the agenda after it is posted on Friday. This board -- the city council in Columbus -- could easily pass a resolution to commit not to change the agenda except for matters of critical importance such as public safety and only if that matter came up after the posted agenda.
It might seem to be a small thing, but if the citizens had a guarantee of adequate notice on topics of board actions, then perhaps the trust so lacking might begin to emerge. If that pledge were in existence, you could feel safe to stay home unless there is an issue of concern on the agenda or you could come to board meetings because you are interested in the process not because you feel you have to protect your interests from the process.