Open government advocates in Mississippi are finally starting to see legislative support after years of pushing for better access to records and meetings with several bills moving forward this week.
The “crown jewel,” as one advocate refers to it as, is HB 474, which would require all law enforcement agencies to make incident reports available to the public once an investigation is complete. State House and Senate committees passed companion bills addressing this issue on Tuesday.
Although these reports are technically public information, no requirement exists under Mississippi law that states agencies must release them in any routine fashion. Some newspapers have set up relationships with agencies so they do receive them, but according to Dan Davis, managing editor of the Hattiesburg American, those organizations are in the minority.
“I think it’s an accumulation of a lot of things at a lot of newspapers,” Davis said. “I’ve been in Mississippi newspapers for 33 years and it seems every year it gets worse. And, [HB] 474 is the crown jewel of this package.”
Another bill passing committee aims to improve access to public records and meetings. It puts the state Ethics Commission into an official ombudsman position, mediating disputes between the government and information requesters.
Jeanni Atkins, executive director of the Mississippi Center of Freedom of Information, said this bill would help alleviate individuals and news organizations from incurring costly legal fees since, as the current situation stands, the only way to battle a denied request is to file suit.
Supporters of the various bills, which also include one addressing campaign finance reform and another providing public access to state contracts online, are hopeful that at least some one of these measures will pass.
Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association, said HB 474 has a “good chance of succeeding” in some form or another. Although advocates have been pushing for a bill like this for years, this is the furthest their efforts have made it, Bruce said.
“This year differs in that there really seems to be a thirst and demand among the general public to get this straightened out and make sure the public at large has access to public records,” Bruce said. “After all, they’re open records and we need to remove the barriers and restrictions that are in place.”
An eight-day series the Hattiesburg American ran the week of Feb. 10 highlights the obstacles that individuals and news organizations often face when requesting public information in Mississippi. According to Bruce, this is an issue that has escalated over the years.
“I think there was no one overriding issue that caused this drumbeat to build,” he said. “It’s a death by a 1,000 cuts. The public records law has just been widdled away so consistently over the years that it has become virtually impossible for even the press or public at large to find out basic information about what the government is doing."