I’ve always bought into the adage that readers don’t care what a journalist must go through to get information for a story.
Readers don’t want to hear that Councilman Smith bolted his door shut when you arrived at his office to ask who paid for that wonderful new Olympic-sized swimming pool, cabana and tennis court he has in his backyard. They just want to know WHO paid for it. Period.
But when public officials block the press from information, they block everyone else as well. If we can’t access the information you can’t either.
This brings us to recent actions by the Jackson Redevelopment Authority and the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi. Both like to mouth the word “transparency.” But practice it? Not so much.
Let’s start with PERS, since the public retirement system’s leadership has decided to ignore the law by refusing public access to the minutes of its Oct. 23 meeting. The Redevelopment Authority, on the other hand, has not yet violated the Mississippi’s Open Meetings Act. It is considering doing so by requiring the public to get advanced permission to use recording devices in their meetings.
I, as a member of the public, have filed an Ethics Commission complaint against PERS Executive Director Pat Robertson for directing her staff to forbid access to the minutes of the October meeting. That’s the meeting at which the PERS trust board voted to enact a fixed rate as the employer’s share — in this case the state, cities, counties and school districts – of funding the retirement fund.
PERS says it will let me see the minutes if the trust board approves them at its Dec. 18 meeting.
Sorry, Mrs. Robertson, that’s not the way things work in a state that is striving for openness and has enacted laws to achieve it.
Unfortunately, according to Mississippi Ethics Commission Director Tom Hood, public officials across the state mistakenly think meeting minutes of public bodies can be shielded from public examination until given official approval.
What Robertson and the others fail to realize is the “purpose of the minutes is to memorialize” what has been discussed and decided at a public meeting, Hood says.
The memorializing is done for the public benefit. That benefit is nil if the public can’t see what has been memorialized.
The Ethics Commission, by acting on my Open Meetings complaint, can order Robertson to release the minutes. Problem is a case backlog will prevent any order from coming for two to three more months.
Meanwhile, Robertson gets to kabash the public’s right to know.
Attorney Luther Munford of Phelps Dunbar has been representing the Clarion-Ledger for 30 years.
He says the first thing he would ask Robertson would be for the specific statute on which she was basing her refusal to release the information. I did exactly that a few days ago after receiving a written denial from PERS official Greg Gregory on a hand-delivered open records request.
Don’t really have a statute to cite, says Gregory, deputy administrator of PERS’ Office of Administrative Services.
Munford is not surprised no citation is forthcoming.
“There is no exemption for unofficial minutes as opposed to any other kind of minutes,” he says.
State law has about 40 exemptions, mostly applying to personal or privileged information regarding personnel, pending litigation or ongoing criminal investigations.
A Mississippi Freedom of Information handbook co-written by Munford states that the minutes must be provided in unofficial form within 30 days of the date of the meeting. Before the 30 days, the notes from which the minutes will be written must be provided.
PERS acknowledged the minutes have been distributed to trust board members. That means they have already gone out the door to certain members of the public. “It’s perfectly logical” to argue that distribution of the minutes means the rest of the public should have access to them as well, Munford says.
Meanwhile, the Jackson Redevelopment Authority still has time to avoid an Open Meetings violation by dropping a proposal to require members of the public to provide the Authority’s director advance notice of plans to record an Authority board meeting. Jackson’s daily newspaper quoted Authority lawyer Zach Taylor as saying it has not been decided whether the notice must be given “days” ahead of the meeting or at the door entering the meeting.
Be assured The Mississippi Business Journal intends to continue to record the meeting without giving anyone a heads up. We had editorialized a few weeks ago about the hope that the new leadership at the Redevelopment Authority would bring some badly needed transparency to the agency. So far, they seem to be pitching a shutout against that idea.
Munford says we or anyone else from the public can record the board’s discussions and actions. “They can’t prohibit you from recording,” he says.
“What is difficult for me is to see what their legitimate interest is in the advance notification.”
Mississippi’s attorney general, Munford notes, has stated the public “has the right to” record “unless you are disturbing the meeting.”
Glad he told me that. I better get to work figuring out how to operate my new handheld recorder that has an inconvenient habit of noisily playing back what was just said whenever I try to turn it off.