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Despite sunshine laws, Mississippi government often surrounded by secrecy

A Hattiesburg man fights for access to information about how his son was killed during a law enforcement chase.

A Leakesville newspaper editor tries to report on disputes between county supervisors and trustees of a publicly owned hospital, only to find that decisions that should've been made in public meetings were, instead, hashed out in private.

Voters across the state who want to know the sources of campaign money look in vain for records that will give them full information about who is contributing to the political action committees that are, in turn, giving money to Mississippi candidates.

Open access to public meetings and public records is essential to government accountability, yet Mississippi's laws are full of exemptions that perpetuate a culture of secrecy.

Legislation is being filed this year to try to tighten some of the exemptions and to give people a better chance to see the workings of their local and state governments - the governments that taxpayers support with their hard-earned dollars.

"My inclination is always toward openness. I feel we have gotten better performance when there is total transparency in terms of how governmental entities function," said former Gov. William Winter, who was instrumental in pushing for the state's Open Meetings and Public Records laws a generation ago.

A national study gives Mississippi a failing grade for its government sunshine laws. In that, Mississippi is not alone: 38 states got an "F" in the 2007 study by the Better Government Association and the National Freedom of Information Coalition. The research is posted at www.nfoic.org.

"This national study shows that in the vast majority of states, citizens have little to no recourse when faced with unlawful denial of access under their state's FOI laws," said Charles N. Davis, executive director of the coalition based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

In Mississippi, law enforcement officials and economic developers say there's a legitimate need to keep some information a secret. Criminal investigations often depend on confidentiality and corporations don't want to give away their trade secrets as they try to find locations for their new factories.

"Often times, there are graphic explanations about what happened at the incident that I don't think the public benefits from knowing," said Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee. "Whether it's someone during a rape wrote something obscene on the victim's nude belly, or something else, there are often facts contained in the incident report that would be one of those things that could compromise the investigation."

But some law enforcement officials are reluctant to release details about an incident even to relatives of those involved.

Hattiesburg insurance agent Eddie Stephenson has tried to find out details about the Feb. 4, 2005, death of his son, Matthew, who wrecked his vehicle while being chased by Lamar County deputies. The father has been blocked because the state's Open Records law does not specifically require the public release of investigative records.

After the wreck, Stephenson requested radio and dispatch logs and accident and investigative reports. Lamar County officials refused.

"I feel like my civil rights have been violated because they won't give me this information," Stephenson said.

He spent more than two years fighting for the logs and reports, including filing a lawsuit which was settled last year. Part of the agreement was that details of the settlement would not be disclosed.

Mississippi laws already say that most meetings of taxpayer-supported groups such as city councils or boards of supervisors are supposed to be open to the public if a quorum of the board is present. But some boards find ways to circumvent those rules by having a series of back-to-back meetings without a quorum - on a five-member board, the members will meet two at a time.

State Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said he has also noticed a trend among local government boards in his part of the state: "I've seen a lot more executive sessions than I did 16 years ago."

Russell Turner is editor of the Greene County Herald, a weekly newspaper based in Leakesville in southeastern Mississippi. For the past several years, he has covered disputes between the county supervisors and the trustees of the publicly owned Greene County Hospital. He said nobody has tried to stop him from attending the public meetings, but there are other problems.

"We struggle from not what's done in the board meetings but what is done in the shadows," Turner said.

He said he has noticed that officials sometimes can publicly argue for weeks - then they suddenly resolve their differences out of public view.

"Clearly, some back-room dealings are going on," said Turner, who believes such problems are not limited to Greene County.

He said Mississippi's sunshine laws have "no teeth." In 2003, the state set a $100 fine for public bodies that intentionally violate the Open Meetings law. Turner says that's a pittance for public officials who want to circumvent the law.

"Who's going to catch them?" Turner said. "If you do catch them, who's going to care about a $100 fine?"

Campaign finance records have been a constant source of complaints by government watchdogs who say Mississippi requires too little disclosure.

A national study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Center for Governmental Studies, the UCLA School of Law and the California Voter Foundation also gives Mississippi a failing grade for campaign finance laws because the state does not require candidates to file forms that are in a searchable, electronic form.

State Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, chairman of the House Elections Committee, has said for years that rules governing donations by political action committees are too lax. But efforts to tighten those rules have failed.

Filing a lawsuit to force access to meetings or records can be expensive, so those battles frequently are fought by news organizations on behalf of the general public.

In 2005, then-Hattiesburg Fire Chief Jim Fiero stopped providing details on fire calls because he said it violated privacy laws. Basic details, such as the address of a house fire, were no longer provided.

The Hattiesburg American objected and sought an opinion from the state attorney general, who ruled that the fire chief was wrong. However, it was two months after the ruling before the newspaper's attorney learned the ruling had gone in the newspaper's favor.

Leonard Van Slyke of Jackson, an attorney who represents the media in Freedom of Information lawsuits, said even people without deep pockets can fight for access to meetings or records. He said they need to be persistent.

"These kinds of sunshine matters, unfortunately, generally are not high priority with an individual citizen until he or she is personally impacted," Van Slyke said. "But when that day arrives, that person is generally appalled with the lack of recourse."

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