ACLU picks Miss. for ‘strategic investment’

Published 7:49 pm Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The American Civil Liberties Union has designated its Mississippi chapter as one of five “strategic investment” sites in the country.

That means more money, more staff working in the Magnolia state and the potential for more lawsuits.

The national office in New York chose Mississippi along with Texas, Florida, Montana and New Mexico based on leadership skills and level of need.

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The ACLU wants to bridge the gap between some of the larger affiliates and smaller ones in poorer states.

The Mississippi ACLU is crafting a five-year plan to mete out the funds, which will bring in around $500,000 to $1 million. The money, which begins arriving in April, could double its budget.

The office hopes to have a final plan by January.

The money will help the office expand existing causes and establish training on access to government. It became apparent in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that many displaced residents did not know who their representatives were.

“And even if they know the names of individuals who are their elected officials, they don’t know their roles and responsibilities,” said Nsombi Lambright, who heads Mississippi’s affiliate.

Also, as part of its growth in the state, the ACLU will have more staff to monitor City Hall issues, including executive sessions, public commentary and Jackson Mayor Frank Melton’s controversial crime-fighting tactics.

Telling residents they cannot criticize a council member during public commentary is on Lambright’s list of grievances.

“People don’t know about open-record laws in Mississippi. People don’t know about public-meeting laws. So when we have a government body that says you can’t speak or you can’t attend this meeting, we want to be able to identify those places and challenge them if we can,” she said.

Lambright, who briefly ran the office solo when she first took over in 2003, said the affiliate now has five full-time and two part-time staffers.

Brent Cox, a new public education coordinator in the office, has already helped a predominantly black community that complained of excessive roadblocks and a mother who was told she couldn’t get her son’s arrest report without a subpoena. He wants to do more.

Public access in Mississippi is “horrible,” said Cox, who moved here from Florida. “They fight tooth and nail to keep the public from knowing what they’re doing,” he said.