Sun shines brighter over time in Mississippi
Published 2:49 pm Thursday, March 17, 2011
Stan Tiner, an award-winning and well-respected journalist, called me several years ago with a big project on his mind.
Tiner, who has been editor of The Sun Herald on the Mississippi gulf coast for many years, was bemoaning the fact so much of the public’s business was apparently conducted in private.
Of the states where Tiner has worked in his notable career, Mississippi was, in his opinion, the worst when it comes to transparency and open government.
“I truly believe we are living in the ‘Secret State of Mississippi,”’ I remember him telling me.
lt was not a point I was willing to argue.
My own career has not taken me away from Mississippi but for brief periods, but I am in a position to speak regularly with my counterparts at press associations across the country. And, no doubt, we have been dealing “from a deck stacked against us since the Public Records and Open Meetings Acts were passed back in the 1970s and subsequently whittled away through the years.
What sprang from those conversations Tiner shared with us at the press association and other open government advocates at the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information was an investigative series that appeared in newspapers statewide in each of the legislative sessions over the past four years. “Secrecy in Mississippi,” a cooperative effort that is coordinated by the Associated Press in Jackson, has been a tremendous undertaking that has yielded very tangible results. In the years since the project was launched, police incident reports have been declared public records and penalties for elected officials who recklessly disregard open meetings laws have been significantly strengthened.
When I think back to the first series, the challenges seemed very daunting. The very culture of our politics and much of government in Mississippi felt ingrained with a natural aversion to transparency. I’m sure more than a few politicians would have told you in a rare moment of brutal honesty the system works better when lawmakers don’t have to worry about people finding out all the details.
A common cloak of secrecy often used to cover the public’s business is that of economic development. Many have argued over the years that multinational corporations can be quickly scared off from making a substantial investment in Mississippi if delicate negotiations become public.
Reasonable people may disagree on such examples.
But that’s a far cry from a local board of supervisors that invokes executive session to discuss how much more county residents are going to have to pay in garbage fees. That’s what happened in Lauderdale County last year, and it was an important example that underscored the need for all elected officials to be more accountable to the public they are elected to serve.
The same goes for crime reports.
In my stints as a reporter and editor, I ran across more than one police chief or sheriff who was reluctant to release basic information on crimes. Doing so might make them look like they were not effective at their jobs, the officials would argue.
But in denying access to general information on crimes in their communities, it was a disservice to the public at large. We all have a right to know what is going on in our communities; that includes the good and the bad.
Changing minds about the need for greater openness is a tall order. March 13-19 is Sunshine Week, a time when news organizations and open government advocates work even harder to promote transparency in government and the freedom of information. This newspaper is a key partner in that effort.
When we look back at the incredible 235-year history of our nation, the importance of a free press in our achievements cannot be denied.
Your local newspaper is more than just a community bulletin board; it’s an important watchdog of government and champion of transparency. We live in a free and open society. Ignorance may sometimes be bliss, but secrecy in government is a cancer.
I’m proud to say we’ve made great advances in treating the illness over the past couple of years. But there is a lot of work still to be done.
(Layne Bruce is executive director of the Mississippi Press Association. His email address is email@example.com. For more information about Sunshine Week, visit sunshineweek.org.)