Miss. government sunshine laws not consistent

Published 1:58 pm Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Want to get personnel records for a government employee or attend the board meeting of a county-owned hospital in Mississippi? How about reviewing records of the state Board of Dental Examiners or attending a Parole Board hearing?

You’re probably out of luck.

Although many government functions are open to citizens, there are plenty of exceptions to sunshine laws.

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Gov. Phil Bryant signed another one March 4: A new law, which took effect immediately, says the public no longer has access to the names and addresses of people who receive state-issued permits to carry concealed weapons.

The law to cloak the concealed-carry information was supported by the National Rifle Association. It was pushed by Mississippi legislators who were upset that a New York newspaper earlier this year published details about some permit holders there.

“Sensitive gun owner information is entitled to privacy protections — just like medical records, tax documents and personnel files,” Republican Bryant said in signing the new law.

Before the new law was enacted, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal newspaper and the Jackson Jambalaya blog requested what were then public records about the concealed-carry permits, although they said they didn’t plan to publish names and addresses. The Department of Public Safety delayed responding to the requests, and DPS deputy administrator Ken Magee told a legislative panel that employees “tried to put it off as much as they can, putting DPS in an awkward position.”

The Madison County Journal criticized the new law.

“If the government is going to insist on keeping any kinds of records on gun owners — and we don’t think it should — those records, at the very least, should be open to public inspection as a guard against abuse and fraud which government is so apt to fall into,” the newspaper editorialized.

Leonard Van Slyke of Jackson, an attorney for the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, said the state’s Open Meetings and Public Records laws have several holes. The Board of Dental Examiners and the Parole Board, for example, are not subject to the sunshine laws.

Boards of water associations also are exempt from the Open Meetings law, but Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, is trying to change that. At his urging, the House changed Senate Bill 2322 to include a provision saying members of water associations or systems would have the right to attend the group’s board meetings and that the group must give members at least 15 days’ notice before any meeting to elect officers.

“I am a firm believer that as long as you have transparency that will solve just about any problem you have,” Turner told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. “If you have open meetings and the members are informed, they will sort out the problems.

Mississippi’s Open Meetings Act generally requires public bodies such as county boards of supervisors or city councils or boards of aldermen to conduct most of their business in public view. However, there are specific reasons they’re allowed to close meetings, including discussions about hiring, firing or disciplinary matters for government employees.

Van Slyke said he has heard many complaints about public boards being too vague when giving their reasons for closing meetings.

“Public bodies tend to use the word ‘personnel’ too broadly,” Van Slyke said.

The law allows meetings to be closed to talk about job performance, character, professional competence or physical or mental health, he said.

“You often hear that a board will go into executive session and say ‘personnel’ without a description,” he said.

Ruling on a Hinds County case in the 1980s, the Mississippi Supreme Court said boards need to give a specific enough description about why they’re closing the meeting that the public might have some idea of what will be discussed behind closed doors.

The Legislature writes state laws — and it also has partially exempted itself from the Open Meetings Act. The law says legislative subcommittees and conference committees don’t have to be open to the public, Van Slyke said. However, in the past decade, the House and Senate have said in their own operating rules that such meetings are supposed to be open.

Conference committees consist of three House members and three senators, and they generally meet at the end of a session to negotiate final versions of bills. Times and locations for conference committee meetings are posted on the legislative website. But, the reality is that negotiations often take place in Capitol hallways or in more informal settings, as lawmakers juggle multiple meetings or sensitive legislation. Sometimes, negotiators leave the open meeting and go confer privately with each other, or to talk privately with lobbyists or others trying to pass or kill bills.

Tim Kalich, editor and publisher of the Greenwood Commonwealth, said the newspaper has covered board meetings of the county-owned hospital for decades, with mixed levels of access. Because state law does not compel the board meetings to be open, members of the general public, including reporters, have gotten to attend meetings when the board feels like letting people watch business being conducted.

“At times, they have been more open than at other times,” Kalich said.

For example, in the 1970s, Commonwealth publisher John Emmerich would send a reporter to cover the hospital board. “They would routinely kick her out, not let her sit in and listen to the meetings,” Kalich said.

In recent years, Kalich said another Commonwealth reporter was often allowed to attend hospital board meetings but they’d close the sessions when they wanted to discuss matters such as whether to re-hire an administrator. It was similar to what city councils and county boards of supervisors are allowed to do, by law — closing a meeting to discuss personnel matters, pending litigation or certain other matters.

Still, Kalich said a publicly-owned hospital can be one of the largest employers in a community and he believes the law should specify that such boards should be subject to the same Open Meetings laws as most other taxpayer-funded entities.

“I think the public should be able to keep tabs on what’s going on with its largest asset,” Kalich said. “It shouldn’t be up to the whims of the hospital board to decide what they want the public to know and what they don’t want them to know.”

More information about transparency in government and the activities of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information can be found online at www.mcfoi.org.