Wednesday, November 13, 2013
As City Reporter Tyler Cleveland frustratedly reports in this issue and in previous weeks, the quasi-public yet clandestine Jackson Redevelopment Authority has a tendency to recess into executive session when it only has one or two items on its once-a-month agenda.
Similarly, the Hinds County Board of Supervisors also likes to recess into executive session, according to the board agendas, to discuss legal and personnel matters and land acquisition, usually related to the Byram-Clinton Parkway development project.
In principle, there is nothing nefarious about a government body meeting in closed-door executive session. Personnel issues and legal questions can be complicated, messy and scandalous affairs that, if aired in a public meeting where the news media are present, could open up public-relations and litigation Pandora's boxes for the agencies involved.
But far too often in Mississippi, government agencies (mis)use executive session to do things they just don't want the public to know about. That certainly appears to be the case for JRA, which doles out millions of dollars worth of taxpayer funds based on conversations that take place largely in private.
Certain Hinds County board members like to use executive session to launch political hit jobs on insufficiently deferential county employees. They go into executive session, wait until the chancery court boardroom is empty and then announce the latest department firing.
The scope of Mississippi's transparency problem extends far beyond local board chambers, however. For example, to obtain photocopies of documents at the office of Hinds County Circuit Clerk Barbara Dunn, citizens are required to fork over $1 per page. This sum might be reasonable if getting copies meant that an overburdened and underpaid clerk had to do the work. At Dunn's office, people make the copies themselves.
On the statewide level, representatives of various offices capriciously decide who gets access to public information.
Mick Bullock, Gov. Phil Bryant's press person, has refused to add the Jackson Free Press to media distribution lists (too bad for Bullock, our media colleagues share the public information with JFP) and Pamela Weaver, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann's gatekeeper, once said she would only accept emailed questions from our organization, which is against our code of ethics.
The national nonprofit Sunshine Review gave Mississippi a grade of C for transparency in 2013. We are offended not only because it makes our jobs as news reporters more difficult, but because public information is public property. Denying access to public information is tantamount to stealing public property.
The JFP has raised hell about officials' flagrant flaunting of transparency, and will continue to do so. Now, citizens—the taxpayers to whom this property rightfully belongs—should also demand accountability.
We promise to keep fighting right alongside you for your right to know.