Fighting gov’t secrecy an ongoing battle

JEANNI ATKINS

Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information

OXFORD — Fast-moving world events remind us again how secrecy harms societies and how critical the free flow of information is to protecting citizens’ rights.

As Egypt descended into anarchy, revolutions were being spawned in other countries.

Efforts to impose secrecy on unfolding events by shutting down the Internet and attempting to prevent news media from reporting the story have failed and instead fueled the people’s revolution.

By closing off access to information, governments obscure the truth and avoid accountability to the public.

But hiding behind a wall of secrecy to maintain power and preventing people from having a voice in matters affecting their lives can cook up a volatile, toxic brew of frustration escalating into violence.

We don’t have to pay the high price of risking lives and economic hardship as people in the Middle East who are fighting to force government accountability and gain a voice in decisions and policies.

But we must remain vigilant to challenge lack of transparency and work to improve access to information.

A growing number of citizens around the country realize how essential it is to assume responsibility for keeping tabs on local and state government within their communities.

They understand that they have a real stake in decisions made by mayors, boards of supervisors, city councils, schools boards and other decision-makers who set policies and spend taxpayer funds.

But citizens trying to stay informed face considerable frustration despite the open meetings and public records laws.

You go to a meeting, and members of the public body zip through an agenda without deliberation or explanation. Or they immediately adjourn for an executive session to discuss public matters privately. You ask to see minutes of meetings and are told they’re not ready even months after the meeting.

You’re left in the dark and uninformed. But bills pending in the Mississippi Legislature could punish individual who violate the open meetings law with fines from $500 to $1,000 and declare actions in illegal executive sessions null and void.

Depending on what part of the state you live in, you could be socked with excessive search and copy fees for public records. Mississippi has no standard policy on how much can be charged, although the law states “actual cost.”

Bills have been introduced in the Legislature to address these problems, but indications are they are unlikely to pass this year.

One solution would be to make public records available online in user-friendly, easily searchable databases.

Online government transparency, in fact, is the new frontier attracting the interest of a variety of citizen groups around the country who are pushing for online databases on government spending at the state and local level.

Research by the U.S. Public Integrity Research Group indicates that states that have responded to the accountability and accessibility challenge with electronic records made available in user-friendly searchable databases report positive outcomes.

A PIRG 2010 report said states with this type of website “are saving money, restoring public confidence in government, and preventing wasteful or pay-to-play contracts.”

These states have set up websites without much upfront cost according to the report, and PIRG explains how to do it.

In a time of economic hardship and major budget cuts, the investment in online records of government expenditures could pay great dividends by reducing waste, deterring corruption and saving taxpayer money.

Mississippi government is moving in the right direction in utilizing the Internet but has a long way to go to catch up with other states.

The Mississippi Accountability and Transparency Act of 2008 was a good step in providing information, requiring the state Department of Finance and Administration to put state expenditures online.

A bill to amend the 2008 law introduced in the Legislature would strengthen this law in several ways, including expanding the data on expenditures online in searchable databases and making it available in a more timely manner without charge to the public.

But much more information than spending could be put on the Internet to inform citizens.

Notices of upcoming meetings with agendas, copies of minutes of meetings, budgets, salaries and many other types of information are routinely put online in other states.

There are government officials in Mississippi who are taking seriously their responsibility to be transparent in conducting public business.

They have been pro-active in broadcasting public meetings putting records, agendas, minutes and videos online, blogging about public business, utilizing Facebook and Twitter, opening up the budget decision-making process and inviting citizens to share their ideas.

The Internet has revolutionized the world. It’s a powerful tool to inform citizens about government. Posting information online is efficient and saves time and money.

Technology improves transparency and government accountability, and steps taken by Mississippi government to harness this tool are encouraging.

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Jeanni Atkins is executive director for the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, based at the University of Mississippi.

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Online:

Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information: http://www.mcfoi.org

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