In other states, personnel records such as like disciplinary action are open when it comes to public bodies. And meetings to discuss those items are held in open session.
In Mississippi, where sunshine laws are shadowy, to say the least, boards have the option to (and often do) withhold this information. Boards often enter into closed sessions to discuss personnel matters, and when they let the public back in, they don”t offer any explanation of what action might have been taken.
Such has been the case with recently suspended Columbus Police Chief Joseph St. John.
The open-records and open-meetings laws in this state offer governing bodies ample opportunity to discuss and make decisions in closed session.
And aside from salaries, there is little, if any, personnel information public boards are required to disclose.
Mayor Robert Smith has placed St. John on paid administrative leave, and he and the City Council have chosen to keep the taxpayers in the dark about why. Mr. Mayor and City Council, we the taxpayers have a right to know why our head law enforcement officer is on a mandated hiatus.
Even under cloudy sunshine laws, public officials can choose to be open to the public they serve.
In this case, they certainly should.
At the close of 2008 and opening of 2009, St. John took a leave of absence, reportedly struggling with a drinking problem. On June 17, St. John called in sick for a Civil Service Commission hearing, where two officers were appealing their 20-day suspensions. St. John chose not to divulge his illness, but city officials have said he did test positive for alcohol.
The chief of police is a very public position. Of local officials, St. John has been among the most visible and accessible, to the media and the general public.
He”s been the people”s chief, in every sense of the phrase.
It”s time to let the people know what”s going on.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.