Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn brought his “Mississippi Solutions — An Ideas Tour” to Columbus on Tuesday. About 75 citizens, a third of them 10th-graders from Lowndes County Young Leaders group, packed themselves into the old municipal courtroom at City Hall.
It is difficult to say what will come of these meetings. Gunn, who is paying for the four-day, nine-stop tour out of his own pocket, did not have a specific outcome in mind.
“To be honest, this was my staff’s idea,” he acknowledged. “We just wanted to hear ideas. We know it can be tough getting in touch with legislators during session. These meetings are an opportunity for people to have access to their legislators.”
For an hour, Gunn and a handful of the area’s congressional leaders listened patiently to questions from the audience. Predictably, some weren’t questions at all. Some wanted to state their personal views. Some wanted to thank the legislature for supporting their organization. And, of course, there was one speaker who wanted to proclaim his great manifesto.
Through it all, Gunn listened attentively, often drawing out specifics when he was unsure of what the audience member was suggesting.
The visit to Columbus was Gunn’s fifth session in two days. He was to hold a similar meeting in Meridian later Tuesday before wrapping up the tour with stops in Hattiesburg and Biloxi Thursday and ending with a meeting in Brookhaven on Friday.
Gunn said the venues were selected so no Mississippi resident in would be more than an hour’s drive from one of the meetings.
Through five meetings, the most popular topics have been education, taxes and health issues. In Columbus, the questions/statements/manifestos ranged from the practical to the surreal.
There is, of course, no way of knowing whether these sessions will influence the lawmakers in terms of legislation. But even if they do not result in tangible results, the idea of getting out among the people is a worthwhile endeavor.
We applaud any effort that helps make our legislators accessible to the citizens. There is one point of contention where it concerns the format, however.
In laying out the “ground rules,” Gunn said citizens should not use the forum to criticize the legislators in attendance.
In acknowledging the difficulty in actually talking to legislators — as Gunn mentioned, that difficulty was one of the main reasons for having these meetings in the first place — it leaves one to wonder just when citizens are afforded an opportunity to engage their legislators and hold them accountable for what they do in Jackson.
This “speak no evil” ground rule undermines the spirit of the tour, it seems to us.
Hopefully, if these tours continue, Gunn will permit the kind of candid dialogue that gives these sorts of gathering real substance.
But as a first step, we applaud Gunn’s attempts to give citizens access to their lawmakers.
It’s something we would like to see all of our legislators make an effort to do.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.