Editorial: Mississippi needs more openness in government

When it comes to citizen access to meetings and records of local and state elected and appointed bodies, Mississippi’s law says:

— “The formation and determination of public policy is public business and shall be conducted at open meetings.”

— “Providing access to public records is a duty of each public body and automation of public records must not erode the right of access to those records.”

Both the open meetings and public records statutes provide exceptions. There are also exceptions scattered elsewhere in the code. The common factor is that a meeting may be closed or a record may be sealed when it’s in the public’s interest to do so.

If the purpose for closing a meeting or denying access to a record is primarily to allow officials or appointees to escape accountability, avoid embarrassment or expedite a matter — then both the letter and the spirit of the law have been broken.

As often happens, word sometimes does not filter down to some groups that the best government is open government and that the best communities have an informed citizenry. Such notions are too often considered high-minded or inconvenient.

“We’ll tell people what we want them to know, when we want them to know it,” is the attitude.

It’s wrong. State law says so, time and again.

Many “good government” groups work year after year to help people recognize and exercise their privileges as citizens of Mississippi.

The Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information is one of these groups. It is not liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, old or young, black or white. The organization simply believes that government groups do a better job when, as state law requires, they don’t lock out the public.

The Mississippi Ethics Commission, a state-appointed board with a very limited budget, has been given the job of helping people get answers to their questions about what records and meetings must be open and which may be closed. A simple form is available on the commission’s website. The panel investigates and answers.

MCFOI, other groups and pro-openness lawmakers have been working to strengthen the state’s laws and to clarify them where needed. It’s an ongoing, never-ending process to combat what seems to be a natural tendency of some in power to favor secrecy.

But the law says what it says. It says you, as a citizen, are entitled to be informed about your government and to see its processes in action. The Ethics Commission is providing tools to help citizens become or remain informed.

If you agree that the best government is open government, join the effort.

This editorial was written by Charlie Mitchell, assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. He is president of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information.

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