Tougher penalty proposed for Miss. secret meetings

MICHAEL NEWSOM

The Sun Herald

Several lawmakers are pushing big changes to Mississippi’s open meetings law again this year — legislation a House committee chairman killed with a last-minute maneuver in 2010.

Higher fines, as well as proposals to make officials pay instead of taxpayers when there’s a violation, died last year. Opponents said they worried about the financial burdens those changes might place on some low-paid or volunteer officials.

Natchez Democrat newspaper publisher Kevin Cooper, whose paper recently won a state Ethics Commission dispute with Adams County supervisors over a closed session, said he came away from the battle thinking the current maximum fine of $100 is too low. He also laments that taxpayers pay the fine, rather than the officials found in violation.

Mississippi is the only state that charges taxpayers when public officials break open-meetings laws.

“There’s no personal liability to it,” Cooper said.

Jackson-based attorney Leonard Van Slyke, who specializes in open-meetings issues, would like to see a law that voids any action taken on an issue when there was a violation of open-government laws. Van Slyke also favors stiffer fines. He hopes bills with those provisions gain traction this year.

“With the public, it’s a pretty strong issue,” Van Slyke said. “It’s just a question of whether we can get legislators behind it.”

This session, several legislators are backing bills that address concerns raised by Cooper, Van Slyke and others.

The Senate passed a bill in January to impose a fine of up to $1,000 per official, with the violator paying the fine, rather than taxpayers picking up the tab. The bill also would allow a chancery court to nullify action taken in improperly closed meetings.

The House has made changes to the bill before passing it Feb. 17, setting fines at $500 to $1,000, with individual violators paying rather than taxpayers. The two chambers eventually could try to work out a compromise.

Sen. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis; Sen. Merle Flowers, R-Southaven; and Rep. Brandon Jones, D-Pascagoula, are among sponsors of bills to strengthen open-meetings enforcement.

Last year, Baria filed a similar bill that passed the Senate and House of Representatives, but died after House by Judiciary A Committee Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, held it for the possibility of more debate.

After the bill died in 2010, Blackmon said it should have been amended in his committee, rather than on the House floor. He also cited concerns about officials in smaller communities, whom he said are sometimes paid little or nothing, carrying an unfair financial burden. He said often they don’t have much access to legal advice.

Blackmon is an attorney and his firm has represented the city of Canton, where in February 2010 the mayor told a citizen to stop videotaping the Board of Aldermen meeting, but the mayor said later he shouldn’t have done that.

Open-meetings law changes are going Blackmon’s committee again this year.

Blackmon said he doesn’t expect any major differences to arise over the bills this year. He said changes could have a positive effect.

“It puts (officials) on notice,” Blackmon said. “It makes them think twice.”

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The bill is Senate Bill 2289.

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Online:

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

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