Friday, September 20, 2019
This weekend on Sept. 22 (also my mother's birthday), the Jackson Free Press celebrates our 17th birthday and officially starts our 18th year of tough-love accountability journalism in Mississippi and its capital city.
Coincidentally, our new city/county reporter Seyma Bayram has reported on three different government-transparency concerns in the last week, all of which deserve the light of bright sunshine to ensure that the public is getting the information we need from the public servants who work for us.
To that end, today I'm officially launching my new weekly Dossier, which will spotlight our accountability journalism, whether about how ICE raids are conducted or when public officials aren't being transparent or not following proper protocols for informing the public about how they reach their decisions and the motivations behind policy. Along the way, I will suggest potential solutions to these problems and call for you to alert us to others we should be examining.
Also, expect more commentary on how the state's media are living up to the ideals of the Fourth Estate and reporting issues vital to citizens, as well as potential solutions. You already know how I feel about the horse-race reporting epidemic in our state—treating elections like a game does not serve Mississippi residents. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Hold Up, Hinds Supervisors, and Give Us That List
First, let's talk about records destruction. Seyma, who has quickly shown a deep understanding of how data and documents can either shield or illuminate larger community concerns, attended her first Hinds County Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday, Sept. 16. It's the first time we've had a reporter in a supervisors meeting in a while, and she soon texted me that they were voting to destroy years' worth of documents without detailing those records or explaining whether or not digital copies will remain.
Seyma jumped into the story, talking to relevant officials and supervisors researching state law that supposedly allows the destruction (we're not sure it does and believe they cited the wrong law). She communicated fast with our attorneys, who agreed that it looked suspicious based on the information we had, which isn't much. We published a story Tuesday and sent a letter to the supervisors asking for a full list of the documents slated to be immediately destroyed, but haven't gotten a response yet. Seyma sent a follow-up email Thursday, but we still haven't received a response.
I did get an email from District 4 Supervisor Mike Morgan saying he was looking into the matter. He wrote: "Donna, I was not at the meeting Monday due to personal reasons so I don't know the details, but I would never support discarding any records in violation of any state or federal retention acts. We have had a pretty good record of transparency during this board term. I hope there is a misunderstanding as to what records are being disposed of. I'll look into it."
We also ran into incoming supervisor David Archie, who said he would look into it as well.
Here's our bottom line: The supervisors need to provide the documentation immediately to show what files are slated for destruction and justification under state law, if it's there. They must have a list of documents they plan to destroy, and we need to see it. They also must not destroy any documents until we and our readers have a chance to ensure that this a proper and legal move.
Ignoring our questions is the opposite of transparent government.
About That Stinky 'Legislative Privilege'
Speaking of government that is less than transparent, this week Seyma ran squarely into the Mississippi problem of state lawmakers being exempt through a nasty thing called "legislative privilege" from having to provide their communications with each other over vital public concerns. On Monday, she reported on a recent 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the lawmakers, many of them Rankin County-based, who fashioned the plan for the State of Mississippi to take over the Jackson airport did not have to honor subpoenas for their communications about the scheme.
Whatever else is true about the plaintiffs' claims of race discrimination by a group of powerful white men voting to take over a vital economic generator for a majority-black capital city, this ruling really illustrates the problems with lawmakers being able to avoid transparency in their conversations on fashioning legislation. And the bottom line here is that those communications could indeed prove, or disprove, the allegations of racism in this legislation, which Gov. Phil Bryant ultimately signed.
Sen. Josh Harkins owns and lists land near the Jackson Airport. He says it's not a conflict of interest, though.
This is one of those situations that show the complacency of media and others in Mississippi who allow lawmakers to function in the dark, which is better in some states and bad in others. There seems to be a sense of impossibility when it comes to challenging such practices. That is not acceptable. Any public servant should function in the open, especially when developing legislative strategies.
The Convention Center Bailout ... and Rates
Seyma's third brush with transparency oddness came as she followed up on the Jackson City Council's rather reluctant decision Tuesday night to bail out the Jackson Convention Center this month, while refusing to give it nearly $800,000 to cover costs over the next year.
At the meeting, Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes brought up the issue of the rates that the center charges in response to a center spokesman's repetition of the concern that the center is not as competitive because it doesn't have a hotel on site. Now, that is a concern this newspaper expressed back when voters approved money for the convention center, so I don't find it entirely invalid, but it is also true that there are more good nearby hotels now than they were when the convention center first went up. (And don't get me started about the hot mess then-Mayor Frank Melton created with his Texas buddy Gene Phillips, who promised a convention center hotel across the street.)
But Stokes makes a compelling point about the rates. It has long been a concern of many in this area about the costs of using the center, including even being forced to pay the facility if you bring bottles of water in for staff members who are setting up an event (this happened to us once when we co-hosted a mayoral debate there). Then, when Seyma asked for a document showing the rates, she was referred to the center's commission, which made noise about the possibility of having to file a public-records request. Seriously? For rates?
The good news is that once her story about this hit the streets, they sent us the rates later the same day. But insisting that media, or any media of the public, go through formal request steps for a basic rate sheet or other information the public owns is absurd and against the spirit of open government. It is also extremely common both in the City of Jackson and the State of Mississippi. More on that soon.
Ongoing coverage of the politics and treatment of immigrants and refugees in Mississippi
Mixing Immigration with Football: How Dare We!?
Finally, be sure you listen to a voicemail I got recently from "Robert," a man upset that the JFP dared to put a story about recent immigration raids in the same issue as a football preview. The voicemail, on the one hand, is pretty amusing—but also speaks to people with a certain political viewpoint demanding that anything that doesn't support it be quashed. This kind of scolding—from the right and the left, frankly—is not uncommon here, but we manage to soldier on in search of truth, context and solutions.
Meantime, be sure to read our full archive of coverage of the recent Mississippi immigration raids. Seyma wasn't here yet, but state reporter Ashton Pittman really knocked himself out to do great, enterprise coverage, including about the "Chicken PAC" funding Republican elected officials from Mississippi "Hispanic Project" that brought many undocumented workers to Mississippi in the first place. (I'm guessing "Robert" may not know about it.) As you'll see, these issues are far more complicated than "Robert" presented them in his voicemail to me.
Finally, help us with your story ideas, especially those that speak to accountability in local and state government, not to mention development, education and criminal justice. As always, send us your ideas and tips: [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected].
Oh, and be sure to tool about the JFP Document Morgue at jfp.ms/documents. We have many years' worth of accountability documents in there, some of which we had to fight to get.