Panels OK stronger open meeting law

Published 3:11 pm Friday, January 21, 2011

A bill designed to strengthen Mississippi’s open records and public meetings laws has passed the Senate Ethics and Judiciary B committees.

Under the Senate bill, the state Ethics Commission or a chancery court could nullify any action that occurs during an illegally closed meeting. The bill also would impose a fine of up to $1,000 on any person found violating the law.

The bill would set a $100 fine per violation to anyone wrongfully denying a person access to public records. The bill would require public officials who violate the law to pay reasonable attorneys’ fees to the person filing the complaint. No public money could be used to pay the fine or fees.

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Lynn Evans, chairwoman of Common Cause Mississippi, an open-government advocacy group, applauded the bill, which is similar to one that was unsuccessful in the 2010 session.

Evans said there have been a number of incidents in recent years that show the need for the changes. She cited a 2009 meeting held by two members of the Mississippi Transportation Commission at a Jackson restaurant to discuss an Interstate 55 interchange project. The meeting had a quorum of the commission and was not publicly announced. It also excluded one of the three commissioners.

“We want to make people think seriously about what they are doing as part of the public’s business,” Evans said Wednesday after the bill passed the Judiciary B Committee. “We have been looking for a bill like this for some time.”

Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, said he’s concerned some of violations occur because members of the public bodies aren’t aware they’re breaking the law. When the bill comes up for a vote before the full Senate later, Hopson said he would try to amend it to give public officials some latitude on violations that occur unknowingly.

Currently, only a $100 fine is imposed, and the fine is assessed to the public body so taxpayers bear the cost, said Sen. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis.

“The fines simply are not enough to deter anybody from breaking the law,” Baria said.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement lawmakers also are considering a bill designed to increase accountability in government by increasing fines on political candidates and officeholders who do not submit required “economic interest” forms. The fines would be increased from $10 to $100 per day.

“This bill helps to ensure no public servants are using their office to financially benefit at the expense of the public,” Bryant said.

Bryant said both bills were expected to be debated in the Senate on Thursday.

A similar open meetings bill passed the House Judiciary A Committee on Wednesday. The bill filed by Rep. Rita Martinson, R-Madison, would require a fine between $500 and $1,000 on violations of open meetings laws, as well as attorneys’ fees. Another open meetings bill is still pending in Judiciary A.

The bills are Senate 2289, Senate Bill 2596, House Bill 314 and House Bill 13.