Open government in Mississippi is far from reality

Published 3:07 pm Thursday, March 17, 2011

It is seldom that a public official will openly oppose openness. After all, our very tenants of government are that the people are the sovereigns. The government belongs to the people, not the other way around.

But open government is far from a given, nationally and especially in Mississippi.

While many strides have been made, Mississippi’s laws regarding open meetings and open records remain some of the weakest in the nation.

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The Open Meetings Act was put on the books in Mississippi in 1975 in the wake of Watergate and a national movement for government ethics and openness.

However, the law contains broad exceptions that allow too much government policy to be made behind closed doors. Many public officials are not aware of its provisions and some public officials are very aware and use loopholes to subvert it. Then there are those who outright ignore it.

The state Open Records Act has similar weaknesses, including the most recent roadblock put up by some officials who seek to charge exorbitant and arbitrary fees for public access to public records.

While there are officials who seek to subvert the laws, there thankfully are more who understand the importance of openness in government.

In recent years, the Legislature has made law enforcement incident reports public records, although much information remains unavailable. This session, lawmakers put new enforcement measures in the open meetings laws by increasing fines and assessing them personally on violators. In the past, public officials who violated the open government laws simply used taxpayer money to pay the meager fine.

Keeping the sun shining in government takes vigilance by citizens. The Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, Mississippi Press Association, Common Cause and other good government groups work to promote open government in Mississippi as does the American Society of News Editors nationally.

Open government is necessary for good government at any level. Openness prevents and solves a lot of problems. Sunshine is always healthy, always the best policy.