Model rules a big step toward more accountability

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 14, 2010

Way back in 1972, the Legislature consolidated various hints, suspicions and beliefs about access to government documents by adopting the Mississippi Public Records Act.

On that brave day lawmakers declared “providing access to public records is a duty of each public body” and “all public records are hereby declared to be public property.”

Since then, including during the current session, there’s been a lot of what our Baptist brethren call backsliding.

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Anybody has been able to get a law passed sealing any record for pretty much any reason or no reason at all.

A few years ago, lawmakers locked up all E-911 reports tighter than the CIA’s list of covert agents (because a news organization questioned response times of a private ambulance company). More recently, they wanted to put any and all reports of hunters involved in firearms mishaps in a vault (because the National Rifle Association said evil lawyers were “mining” these reports to find clients to sue firearms companies).

But in a big step back in the right direction two years ago, the Legislature endowed the Mississippi Ethics Commission with the authority to investigate and arbitrate public records disagreements as well as open meetings matters.

The commission, under the leadership of executive director Tom Hood, has taken the assignment seriously. Meeting earlier this month, the eight volunteer members adopted model records rules.

It was another red-letter day for people who know open government is good government.

There are literally hundreds of public boards and agencies in Mississippi. They start at the state level and range from city councils, school boards and boards of supervisors to zoning authorities, pollution control boards, tourism development groups and law enforcement agencies. There are exceptions (too many), but the public records act covers any “entity created by the Constitution or by law, executive order, ordinance or resolution.”

With the model rules, each entity now has the most clear instructions yet on why to adopt a posture of openness with records and, more importantly, how.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail.

Candor requires that I mention that I’m a board member of the Mississippi Coalition for Freedom of Information and a former board member of the Mississippi Press Association, which provides most of the funds for MCFOI and that MCFOI submitted lengthy comments to the Ethics Commission during the rules drafting process.

Candor doesn’t require it, but I’ll also mention I think the model rules should be far more liberal to requests for records than they are.

What matters most, however, is that they are a giant stride toward clarity.

While the public records act requires that all custodians of public information establish rules on how requests for records will be handled, doing so has not been a priority. For each entity to write its own rules would be a pain, so the beauty of the model rules, which are available at the ethics commission site on the Internet, is that entities can download them, adopt them as written or modify them to fit their own practices.

Those of us in the media experience three types of responses when we ask to see or copy records.

Some agencies fully understand they are conducting the public’s business and all citizens are entitled to such basic public information as a mayor’s salary or a docket listing who’s being held in jail and why. These people understand that if the authority to govern arises from the people, as the Declaration of Independence says, the more people keep up with government affairs the better for the government and the better for the people.

At the other extreme is the “trust us” set who see any and all public inquiries as bothersome. They believe citizens who ask questions are meddling. They toss up roadblock after roadblock. Often this is because they sense the public will react strongly to records showing, for example, a school superintendent’s brother-in-law being paid twice as much for painting classrooms as other contractors were paid for the same work.

The model rules — there are only nine — won’t reform those who violate the public’s trust. Dishonest people will remain dishonest. But the model rules will be a big help to a third and significantly large group — those who just don’t know what the law expects of them.

The Mississippi Public Records Act, like many laws, is not always 100 percent clear and is subject to various interpretations. It’s fair to say most records custodians want to comply, but don’t want to make mistakes.

Hood has been conducting informational and training sessions on the act and says he’ll be available for as many as needed.

Big changes can flow from seemingly small beginnings. The model rules won’t make headlines, but they have the potential to make government at all levels more accountable.