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Officials say secrecy sometimes needed in government affairs

A man calls the police after he thinks he hears a woman screaming next door. He tells the dispatcher he thinks his neighbor's wife is being beaten.

Police show up to find children simply roughhousing and screaming in the backyard, but by law they file an incident report. The local newspaper obtains the report, runs a story about the incident and the man at the house gets falsely accused of being a wife-beater by his community.

A major manufacturer is planning to build a new facility in an economically depressed region. The region's newspaper reports the possibility, and soon local politicians are bombarding the company with promises and requests. The manufacturer - which could have brought 400 jobs to the area - decides to move to another state where it is better able to control the flow of information.

These are just two scenarios that defenders of exemptions in Mississippi's sunshine laws cite as reasons to limit public access to some information.

Although the state's Open Meetings Law and Public Records Act both say transparency should be the guiding principle in government, each statute contains a few exemptions. Police incident reports, for instance, are not public records, and public bodies such as a city council or a board of supervisors can go behind closed doors to discuss a potential new industry.

"Law enforcement has a job to do - just like prosecutors do - and they are both very reluctant to release information that could impede an ongoing investigation," said Trey Bobinger, a Jackson-based attorney who is a lobbyist for the Mississippi Sheriffs Association.

"These incident reports are delicate territory," Bobinger said. "And while the media absolutely has a responsibility to the public to let them know what's going on, I don't think anyone in the public is saying, 'I want to know what's going on even if it prohibits law enforcement from catching criminals.' "

Bobinger, who has worked with the sheriffs association for seven years and previously served as a spokesman for the state attorney general, said calls to make incident reports public are overblown.

"From what I have seen, the release of information to the media by sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies has not been a problem across the state," Bobinger said. "Most sheriffs have a very good relationship with their local newspapers and other media outlets. I'm not saying there hasn't been problems in the past, but when they do pop up, they're isolated."

For the past several years, the Mississippi Press Association and other open-government advocates have lobbied the Legislature without success to remove the exemption for incident reports maintained by law enforcement agencies.

Bobinger said he questions whether the issue is really that pressing.

"During meetings on the subject, both sides can usually agree that there is not a huge problem," Bobinger said. "That being said, if the law as it stands is not causing any widespread problems, why the push to change it?"

David Rumbarger has worked in economic development for more than two decades. For the past seven years, he has been the president and CEO of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo.

Rumbarger was instrumental in getting Toyota Motor Co. in 2007 to pick a site near Tupelo for its eighth manufacturing plant in North America.

Toyota expects to employ 2,000 at the factory, ultimately paying $20 an hour in an area that has been hit hard by the loss of furniture manufacturing.

When its search began, Toyota let it be known up front, Rumbarger said, that it hoped economic development representatives and civic leaders would respect its confidentiality.

"That was nothing surprising or new," Rumbarger said. "These guys, these industries, they like to make their decisions without the pressure of politicians, but also without the pressure of the public. They're private organizations whose goal at the end of the day is to improve their bottom line."

Rumbarger said he went to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal early on and asked that the newspaper respect Toyota's confidentiality in its reporting.

"I didn't so much ask them not to report about Tupelo being a possible home for Toyota, but instead just asked them to stick to information that was already in the public domain. And they respected that request," Rumbarger said, adding that these types of situations - the possibility of major industries coming to an area - are the only time he asks for privacy.

Daily Journal Editor Lloyd Gray, however, said, "They may be giving us credit for knowing more than we did."

"We had nothing definitive about Toyota coming to the area," Gray said in explaining the paper's coverage. "But I can say we didn't do a lot of speculative reporting."

Although Gray said he had no specific conversation with Rumbarger about the need for secrecy, "we are not in the business of sabotaging these type of things intentionally."

The differences in media coverage may have played a role in Toyota's ultimate decision, according to Rumbarger. While sites in Tennessee and Arkansas "got caught up in the hype," he said, Mississippi and Tupelo "kinda kept their heads low."

"And we were able to land these guys while those other places didn't."