OXFORD — Mississippi must strengthen penalties against public officials who improperly close public meetings, state Ethics Commission director Tom Hood said yesterday.
Under the state Open Meetings law, officials cannot be fined individually. Instead, the public body is fined up to $100 per violation — and that means the public picks up the tab.
Hood said the current law could discourage people from pushing for openness: “Who’s interested in making the taxpayers pay a $100 fine for what their elected officials did in breaking the law?”
Hood said Mississippi should make individual office holders liable for paying any fines and should increase the penalty to $1,000 per violation, roughly the regional average. Proposals to make both of those changes have failed in the Legislature.
Hood spoke Thursday on a Freedom of Information panel at the University of Mississippi. He was joined by Jackson attorney Leonard Van Slyke, who handles Open Meetings and Open Records cases for media outlets; and David Hampton, editorial director of The Clarion-Ledger newspaper.
Hampton said some Mississippi government entities have begun trying to thwart requests for public records by charging unreasonably high prices. He said, for example, that when The Clarion-Ledger requested e-mail correspondence from Gov. Haley Barbour’s office, the governor’s office said it would cost $14,000 for attorneys and others to review the e-mail messages to see what could be released under the Public Records law. Hampton said the newspaper did not pay for the records and did not receive them.
State law allows government entities to charge for the actual cost of making records available, Van Slyke said.
Panelists said many people don’t think about the importance of open government until it affects them directly.
Hood said government secrecy is “corrosive to democracy.”