From its inception, our nation was founded on a few basic, if revolutionary, principles including – as Lincoln put it – “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Essential to our form of government is the commitment that the business of the people should be conducted publicly and that citizens have a right to know what our elected leaders are doing on their behalf.
To ensure that, open meetings and public records laws are written into our state constitutions.
Even so, the temptation to conduct public business privately still emerges. Mississippi’s open meeting laws are less stringent than many and we’ve seen cases where public officials have tried to circumvent those laws, thereby denying citizens their rights to know what their officials are doing.
As an example, in 2014 The Dispatch filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission against the city of Columbus for circumventing the law and making decisions in non-quorum meetings. The Ethics Committee ruled against the city, but the city – using more than $18,000 in tax dollars – fought the decision all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 2017 ruled that the city had, indeed, violated the Mississippi Public Records Act.
Although that case involved a newspaper filing an ethics complaints, individuals can also file complaints.
And that’s where a private citizen’s right to public records can be compromised due to cost.
Not every citizen can afford to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees that might be required to hold their elected officials accountable through the current process.
It’s a major flaw in our laws and one that should be corrected.
That is why we were disappointed to learn House Bill 1487 died in committee. The bill, presented by Joel Bomgar (R, Madison), would have appropriated funds to allow the Mississippi Ethics Commission to hire an attorney to represent citizens in cases where an Ethics Commission’s ruling has been appealed to the court system.
We were enthusiastic in our support of this bill based on the belief that the public’s “right to know” should not be limited by their ability to pay for that knowledge.
Apparently, the powers that be do not agree, which is unfortunate. By its inaction, the Legislature has embraced government “of (some) of the people, by (some) of the people and for (some) of the people.
That’s beyond disappointing.
We’ll hold out hope a similar bill is introduced again next year.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.