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Put the public back in control of public business

Public officials and public meetings and public records at every level of government in Mississippi are too often shrouded in secrecy.

How do we know this?

Because we have seen public officials on opposite sides of an issue suddenly resolve their differences without providing their constituents a clue as to how they reached a consensus.

Because we have been ejected from public meetings - or have seen public officials scurry out of a public forum - so that they can huddle out of sight in "executive session."

Because we have been denied access to documents and materials that were produced at public expense and that deal with public matters.

If you've spent a little time around a city hall or courthouse or the Capitol, you've experienced the same things.

Based on your experience and ours, the Sun Herald and other newspapers around the state this week will delve into Mississippi: The Secret State.

We're going to peek into those secret gatherings and pry into those sealed records and toss some sunshine into the shadows.

We shouldn't have to do such things.

When the Mississippi Legislature passed an open meetings law more than three decades ago, lawmakers declared that: "It being essential to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government and to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner, and that citizens be advised of and be aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the State of Mississippi that the formation and determination of public policy is public business and shall be conducted at open meetings except as otherwise provided herein."

Glorious language - except for that "except."

The original legislation provided for a limited number of exceptions to openness. But exceptions have significantly and inexcusably expanded during the last 30 years. It is time to prune them back.

It is time to put the public back in control of public officials and public meetings and public records.

Today, and for the next seven days, the Sun Herald will detail how government agents and agencies deny or frustrate efforts to see what they have done, are doing or will do.

We urge you to join us in this effort.

As Leonard Van Slyke of Jackson, an attorney who represents the media in Freedom of Information lawsuits, says in a story today: "These kinds of sunshine matters, unfortunately, generally are not high priority with an individual citizen until he or she is personally impacted. But when that day arrives, that person is generally appalled with the lack of recourse."

Don't wait until a government door is slammed in your face or you are tossed out of a public meeting or you are denied a public document of vital importance to you to become concerned about these issues.

The time to concern yourself is now.