Openness in gov’t should be a priority

Published 12:44 am Sunday, February 10, 2008

When public officials break laws — any laws — it is disappointing, even infuriating.

They should know better.

Catching a public servant doing wrong is a little like discovering your preacher is a drunken gambler, who kicks dogs and pinches babies for fun on the weekends.

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Sure, we’re all humans, so we all sin.

However, elected officials still need to be held to a slightly higher standard than John Q. Public.

Unfortunately, many taxpayers seem content with just looking the other way when elected officials make a mistake — intentionally or by accident.

Last week a number of people seemed to have no problem whatsoever with the fact those three Adams County supervisors met privately with two county road officials.

State law stipulates that meeting was a violation of the Mississippi Open Meetings Act. Unfortunately, the law is like a watchdog without teeth. No real penalty is stipulated in the law for those who violate it.

Newspapers and other civil rights groups have been pressing for stronger open meetings laws for years.

But the worrisome part is just how little the common man seems to care.

What’s happened to our society when we collectively hold our leaders to such a low standard of accountability?

Do we just not care anymore?

Or are we simply more worried about the “big” things that we just don’t mind a few small ones?

Nationally and at the state level the “mistakes” can be huge — sex scandals, refrigerators filled with cash, etc.

Maybe that’s it.

Perhaps in our global media world, our level of tolerance, our breaking point of concern is just higher than it once was.

Society would be better off if everyone became a little more concerned about all of the little “mistakes” that compound into a government that no longer truly works for the people, by the people.

Sure, our elected officials give lip service to “openness” and “accountability” during the election process. But the minute the votes are counted all bets are off.

We’re going to meet with whomever we want, whenever we want.

The supervisors are just part of the problem. Sure, they broke the law when they met with the road manager and the county engineer.

But then again, they haven’t had a good lead to follow, either.

A little over a year ago, members of the previous board of supervisors met with a prospective private prison development, GEO Group Inc.

Nothing was ever official, but the talks occurred behind closed doors — whether it was a violation of the Open Meetings Law or not, we may never know.

We’ll also never know if anything was promised under the table. But public servants did the talking — public servants paid with public money, discussing the sales off public land to a private company.

Across the street, the Natchez mayor ordered public workers to go on private property and tear down a building, violating a couple of regulations — both city and state. It’s OK, some people said, the building needed to go down anyway.

How infuriated would you be if you owned a building and had been prevented from doing work to it — or even demolishing it — by city preservation regulations only to see the mayor disregard similar laws?

Just down the road from the supervisors’ State Street office, the former circuit clerk embezzled money, admitted to it and received a slap on the wrist.

It was OK, the judge said, because he paid back the money. A similar case in a neighboring county resulted in jail time for the guilty party.

In each case, laws were broken, yet in each case large blocks of the community stood up to defend the perpetrator.

That’s almost as disappointing as public officials breaking the law.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or