March 19, 2014 9:59:37 AM
Editor's note: Secrecy remains a pervasive problem in parts of Mississippi government. The Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information has produced a series about the issue, for use as part of Sunshine Week, March 16-22. The following column is part of that series.
"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
This statement by the author of the Bill of Rights reflects the core rationale of the freedom of information movement to enact open meetings and public records laws.
So it's appropriate the nationwide observance of Sunshine Week, March 16-22, is planned to coincide with Madison's birthday.
Sunshine Week is an opportunity to remind people of the principle of the public's right to know about government decisions and actions that affect their lives.
It arrives on the cusp of spring when we yearn for the healing effects of sunlight and warm weather.
Sunshine and the promise of spring are a welcome respite to battered winter-weary people still digging out from arctic blasts.
But "sunshine" also has another meaning.
"Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman," the great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed. "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases."
Widely cited by transparency advocates, this quote and Madison's reflect fundamental constitutional principles the Founding Fathers established to curb government secrecy and arrogance of power.
Secrecy in government, the Supreme Court has stated, is fundamentally anti-democratic.
Act often faces roadblocks
A valuable tool of democracy is the state's Public Records Act designed to pierce the veil of secrecy and shine a light on the decisions and actions of our public servants.
State policy contained in this law is straightforward: "providing access to public records is a duty of each public body."
Unfortunately, some who handle the public's business ignore that duty.
Too often, rather than keeping the public informed, instead they throw up roadblocks. Tactics include charging more than actual cost for records as required by law, delaying disclosure and ignoring the requirement to respond within seven working days to a records request.
Incident reports of crimes and arrests are public records and should be promptly released.
The Columbus Police Department, however, waits four or five days before disclosing felony arrest information according to The Columbus Commercial Dispatch. A suspect is often released before the public even knows about the arrest.
Names of public employees are public records. Yet the Columbus mayor's office told the Dispatch a formal public records request must be filed to get the list.
Public records are an important source on how taxpayer dollars are being used. Gaining access to those records is critical to holding government accountable for decisions.
Misuse of public funds
Articles published over the past year based on government documents reveal that too often, money is spent frivolously on entertainment, travel junkets and for personal use.
Geoff Pender reported in The Clarion-Ledger, for example, that the Department of Rehabilitation Services spent $30,000 to send 17 people to a conference in New York City. Based on public records, The Clarion-Ledger documented lobbyists paid for junkets legislators took, and in some cases taxpayers also were billed for portions of those trips.
Subsequently, a Sun Herald editorial called for slashing state travel budgets in half, pointing out the amount of money spent on this one trip is almost equal to the yearly salary of $37,095 half of Mississippi households make.
Records of the Department of Marine Resources, under federal and state investigations, reveal serious conflicts of interest and misuse of millions of federal and state money.
Two well-publicized pending trials also highlight misuse of public money. Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd was forced to resign when faced with 29 felony and two misdemeanor charges, including fraud and embezzlement. Southaven Mayor Greg Davis also is on trial for embezzlement of public funds.
Stewards of the public purse must be reminded they are accountable to Mississippi citizens for how they use taxpayer dollars.
Budgets of agencies are public records, and much of that information can be found in databases online. You can see how state and county agencies are allocating money by going to www.seethespending.org
Window on decision-making
The Open Meetings Act also facilitates the public right to know. It establishes the procedures public bodies must follow so citizens can be informed about the performance, deliberations and decisions of policymakers. The law states:
"It is hereby declared to be the policy of the State of Mississippi that the formation and determination of public policy is public business and shall be conducted at open meetings except as otherwise provided herein."
Some people in government who otherwise obey laws find ways to avoid compliance with this clear statement of policy of open government.
A meeting to discuss public business where a quorum is present must be open.
To avoid the quorum, however, an issue is often discussed one-on-one with each member of a group in person or by phone, email or texting. Then they meet and take a public vote.
Thus, the public is left in the dark when only voting and no or minimal discussion occurs.
Yet the law states deliberations leading up to a vote must be conducted in an open meeting,
Overuse of executive sessions is another way to avoid deliberating in a public meeting. A specific reason citing a legitimate exemption must be given and a 3/5 vote of members taken before entering a closed session.
Just claiming a "personnel matter" does not constitute compliance. The Mississippi Supreme Court in Hinds County Board of Supervisors v. Common Cause stated the reason to close a meeting must be specific.
The personnel exemption applies only "to the job performance, character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of a person holding a specific position."
Assert your right to know
Members of public bodies should familiarize themselves with the open meetings and public records laws. They should also assume their duty to conduct public business openly.
The press helps to hold government accountable, serving as a surrogate of the public by reporting on public meetings and disclosing what is contained in public records
But 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.
Send a message to people in charge of the public's business that you expect compliance with state access laws.
Maybe tell them like the iconic anchorman Howard Beale: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
Jeanni Atkins is executive director of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information and associate professor at the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.mcfoi.org for more information.