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Mississippi Legislature needs to add teeth to state's open meetings act in next session

One of the highlights of the Christmas season was watching the various TV specials, the best of which was "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Burl Ives narrated and sang several songs in the special, which told the story of how a certain glowing nose helped save Santa Claus' annual Christmas Eve sleigh ride and liberated the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys.

One of the highlights was the capture of the evil Abominable Snowman and the removal of his garish teeth, which rendered him a harmless, lovable oaf.

Just like the Abominable Snowman, the lack of teeth in the state's Open Meetings Law means that public officials can skirt it without any issues unless a media outlet or citizen takes them to court.

The state Supreme Court handed down a 9-0 decision a few weeks ago in its first take on the subject of rolling quorums in case against the city of Columbus. A rolling quorum is a sneaky practice where a deliberative body — such as a city council or a board of supervisors — doesn't meet in enough numbers for it to be considered a public meeting, which requires it to be open to the public after a timely notice.

Such a practice is an affront to appropriate government transparency.

In the case of Columbus, the mayor met with one or two city council members at a time to discuss city business and the meetings were not open to the public. The court came down on the practice, but thanks to the lack of penalties in the Open Meetings Act, the court just told the city in the sternest language that it was to follow the spirit and intent of the law.

That's it. Not one penny in fines. If the Legislature decides to hit public officials in the wallet for a few thousand dollars per violation, this practice might end.

Speaking of tweaks to the state's Open Meetings Act, the use of executive session is something that lawmakers need to examine as well. During the debate by both the Committee on Accreditation and the state Board of Education over whether to declare state of emergency with Jackson Public Schools, neither body opened their deliberations to the public and hid behind the fig leaf of executive session.

Why not just go into a brief executive session if the need arises and then step out to maximize transparency?

According to state law, deliberative bodies can enter executive session for:

  • Personnel matters, especially the discussion of an employee's job performance, competence or character (probably not in JPS case).

  • Strategy session or negotiations in respect to prospective litigation (This is a possibility considering JPS parents tried to file for an injunction in Hinds County Chancery Court the morning the state board met).

  • Security issues (no).

  • Leasing of lands (Ditto).

  • Discussions between a school board and parents and/or students over problems with a specific school (not applicable).

  • Relocation of a business or industry (see above).

On a subject as important as whether or not to take over the state's second-largest school district, these kind of discussions should be mostly in the public sphere.

A government without transparency makes citizens wonder: What do you have to hide?

Steve Wilson covers state and local government for the Mississippi Independent News Service. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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