Truth, honesty laws finally have teeth

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Would you break the law if you knew you faced only a slim chance of being caught and virtually no consequences if you were caught?

Most people would answer, “no.” But laws are not written or enforced for “most people,” but rather to protect the greater good against a small, select element.

Two of Mississippi’s most important laws — protecting the public trust — were strengthened last week.

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After decades in which Mississippi citizens were easily blocked from seeing behind the cloak of secrecy in both public documents and public meetings, laws enacted in the 1970s and 1980s began changing that reality.

Those laws changed slowly through the years, but one constant remained — the open meetings and open records laws lacked enforcement “teeth.” Such laws are easily among the most apt to be bent, pushed or ignored outright.

The laws clearly defined what was allowed and what wasn’t, but punishment amounted to a slap on the wrist for public entities. Taxpayers, not the elected officials who violated the laws, had to pay fines, if they were levied.

Gov. Haley Barbour signed a bill Thursday that added strength to the state’s open meetings and public records laws.

That strength comes in the form of higher and more clear penalties for those found in violation of the law as well as great accountability by forcing the violators — not the public — pay for the fines.

Such changes will help keep the public’s faith in its government as well as remind politicians that they work “by the people, for the people.”