The Mississippi Press Association, The Associated Press and the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information have teamed up for a third year to write a series on what they call the “culture of secrecy” that surrounds open meetings and records laws in the state and those who are making effort to strengthen government transparency, the AP reported.
Advocates say the establishment of a state Ethics Commission in 2008 that handles open meetings disputes has helped transparency efforts but there is still room for improvement. In one of its first cases, the commission ruled that the Transportation Commission violated the state’s Open Meetings law when a quorum of its members discussed funding for a highway interchange at a private dinner. Commissioner Bill Minor denied wrongdoing in an article by the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.
But Dick Hall, the traffic commissioner who did not attend the dinner and reported the infringement, told the AP that the open meetings law has “no teeth” because penalties for violations are paid from public funds, not by individuals. A bill that could change that is currently pending in the Mississippi Legislature.
Leonard Van Slyke, a Jackson, Miss. attorney who specializes in open meetings and open records cases, told the AP that information requests are often not looked at until the 11th or 12th day of the government’s 14-business-day response time allotment and that people are discouraged from seeking information because they are asked to explain how it will be used.
Emily Wagster Pettus, an AP reporter who has been covering government since 1994, said that public access to information and open meetings “has been an ongoing problem in Mississippi.”
“I think probably any journalist who has worked in the state for any length of time will tell you that,” she said, citing high costs for copies of document copies, Gov. Haley Barbour’s unpublished public schedule and Mississippi’s 14-day public records waiting period as examples.
She said that the series will end on a positive note with a piece called “Getting it Right,” which will highlight officials who are trying to make sure that public information is readily available.