Advocates: Demand open government in Mississippi

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Open government advocates say Mississippi can do a better job of providing access to information, but citizens have to demand it.

Brent Cox of the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union said citizens should go to city council, school board and other meetings and speak out when they’re denied documents.

Cox said the ACLU has had to send letters to various government groups informing them they are in violation of the state’s public records laws. However, he said unless citizens “cry foul” government entities will continue to abuse the law.

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“Don’t just accept it. This is your government,” Cox said Tuesday during a news conference at the state Capitol by representatives of several organizations including the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information and Common Cause to recognize National Sunshine Week.

Cox said the ACLU is currently assisting Eugene Lockhart, a 65-year-old Jackson man who describes himself as transient.

Cox said Lockhart has been denied access to his police records. Lockhart said he wants the documents to find out what charges have been filed against him after being picked up for sleeping on benches and accused of trespassing on private property.

“I’ve been denied access to the courthouse or told the right personnel is not there,” to provide the records, Lockhart said. “I’ve been kicked out of city council meetings.”

Assistant Police Chief Lee Vance referred questions to the city’s legal department, which didn’t immediately respond.

“We’re helping him submit a public records request and we’re tracking how long it takes for the city to comply, if they comply at all,” Cox said.

Open government legislation didn’t fare well this legislative session, said Leonard Van Slyke Jr., a Jackson attorney who represents media groups and deals with public records law.

Van Slyke said one bill would have shortened the time an agency has to respond to a records request from 14 to 3 business days. He said the current law is “entirely too long.”

Another bill would have defined what agencies could charge someone for government documents. Currently, the fee can vary from agency to agency.

A third proposal to open access to 911 tapes was introduced but never got out of committee.

Van Slyke said he was discouraged, but added that “it generally takes more than one year to educate the Legislature about bills.”

The bills are Senate Bill 2921 and House Bill 1048.