Mississippi open meeting laws lack bite, official says

Published 1:13 am Sunday, December 26, 2010

NATCHEZ — While the Mississippi Open Meetings Laws are similar to most states in the country, Jeannie Atkins, director of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, said there is a fundamental flaw with the issue of punishment for violation of the Open Meetings Act.

According to the current law, if the court finds that a public body has willfully and knowingly violated the act, the court may impose a civil penalty up to $100, which must be imposed upon the public body.

Atkins said the violation has occurred numerous times when a board decides to go into executive session without giving a reason or states reasons, such as “personnel,” without being specific.

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“To have just $100 for a board to pay is really an invitation almost for officials to say ‘This doesn’t mean much if we don’t follow the law,’” Atkins said. “And this is what we’ve been encountering over the past 10 years and from what we find by talking to reporters and citizens across the state.”

Efforts by the Mississippi Ethics Commission and Atkins’ group to pass stronger penalties for violating the Open Meetings Act were held on a motion to reconsider and died on the calendar in the 2010 Mississippi Legislative session.

The bill, Senate Bill 2373, sought to allow the ethics commission or a court to nullify actions taken in violation of the act and to impose a $1,000 fine on individual board members who violate the act.

Atkins said she is optimistic that the bill will pass in 2011. If not, the FOI center will keep pushing until a stricter punishment is enacted, she said.

“What we are trying to do is to make each individual member responsible for paying that fine if they knowingly and willfully violate the law,” Atkins said. “This way, it doesn’t come out of the taxpayers’ pockets.”

Tom Hood, executive director and chief counsel for the Mississippi Ethics Commission, commented on the weakness of the punishment for violating the act in an article for the Freedom of Information spotlight newsletter.

“We don’t really have a stick to beat people over the head with,” Hood said. “There (are) very few penalty provisions in the Open Meetings Act, but we can, at least, bring it to a public forum and order people to comply with the law.”

According to the Ethics Commission’s report, 25 open meetings complaint dispositions have been filed since new procedures were enacted in 2008, which allows the Mississippi Ethics Commission to be the arbiter of disputes regarding any violations.

Atkins said since 2008 the means of filing a complaint against violations of the meetings act are fairly simple, but is still not well known among citizens.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the problems around the state because very few people know about this procedure that can be followed and the fact that they have the right to file a complaint,” Atkins said.

An electronic form is available on the commission’s website, www.ethics.state.ms.us, for anyone wishing to file a complaint against a board they feel has violated the meetings act.