Secrecy: Update laws on openness

The Clarion-Ledger

“It being essential to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government and to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner, and that citizens be advised of and be aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the State of Mississippi that the formation and determination of public policy is public business and shall be conducted at open meetings except as otherwise provided herein.”

– Open Meetings Act, 1975

The legislative declaration at the beginning of Mississippi’s Open Meetings Act is a practical statement for the need for open government.

It is “essential” to the operation of our government that citizens be aware of the actions of public officials in determining the policies that affect their lives. While this idea is generally accepted, it is not always practiced.

Public officials, facing controversial decisions, or even worse, taking action they intentionally want to hide, shut the public out. Documents that detail the actions of government, often involving the use of taxpayer money, are hidden from public view.

Mississippi’s Open Meetings Act and the Open Records Act state the intention of openness, but do not adequately provide the practical requirements under law to ensure it.

The Open Meetings Act has a list of exceptions. While some are valid, including sensitive personnel issues and proprietary matters such as the purchase of land, the exemptions are too many and too broad.

Worse, exemptions and procedures that were intended for specific valid purposes are interpreted so broadly as to make the law useless. One example is that some law enforcement agencies close their records under the guise of protecting investigative material. Basic incident reports on crimes – information that involves public safety – are often hidden.

Agencies close meetings based on broad definitions of “personnel matters,” or possible “litigation.” Too often, the law is only as valid as the good intentions of the public officials.

Often, seeking enforcement of the laws requires expensive litigation, which puts a chilling effect on private citizens seeking open government.

Open government is promoted by the media, but it is not a media issue – it is a public issue. Any citizen should be able to observe the action of government officials or have access to public records. It’s that simple.

Today begins a series of reports on Mississippi’s problems with secrecy. There are various improvements that should be made to the state’s open meetings and records laws. Exemptions should be tightened and procedures improved to aid citizens seeking to know how their tax money is used, what their government is doing and how their lives are impacted.

Openness is “essential” to good government. The doors should open on Mississippi’s secrecy.