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Private citizens often lead charge to challenge government secrecy

Many towns have a Bob Bryant, and those that don't would do well to get one.

For the past several years, Bryant has been the open-government advocate for Crenshaw, a Delta city of about 900.

"He's a relentless sort of guy," said John Howell, publisher of The Panolian, the local newspaper that covers Crenshaw politics. "He's a real thorn in their side."

Bryant, a retired Shelby County, Tenn., sheriff's deputy, is even more frank.

"I worry the crap out of them," he said.

Worried about the effect dilapidated properties were having on land values in Crenshaw, Bryant started regularly attending meetings of the Crenshaw Board of Aldermen late in 2005. After attending a few meetings, he said feared a lot of business was being conducted outside of the council's open session "because they didn't want to fool with the public."

No one would answer simple questions, like how much the city owed its creditors or how a $300,000 housing grant was being spent, he said.

So Bryant stared filing requests for the city's financial documents.

"I just went in there looking," he said. "I wanted to look at the financial records and minutes of prior board meetings."

City officials ignored the requests until Bryant hired an attorney who sent a letter warning them the city was in violation of state law. Through constant hounding and the threat of legal action, he said he has seen some improvement but "not near enough."

The state's Open Meetings and Public Records laws are too weak, he said.

"Once they stonewall you, you've got to get into your pocket and hire lawyers. Why should we have to do that?" he said. "You are out here doing the government's job for them without any resources."

It shouldn't be that way, agreed Jackson lawyer Leonard Van Slyke, an expert in open-government law.

"There should be an attitude from public officials that we want to make as much information as possible public and exercise exemptions only when necessary," he said.

The state Public Records law begins with the statement that allowing access to records is Mississippi state policy and that providing access is the duty of public officials. Van Slyke said the law does not require any public official to withhold a document because all of the state exemptions can be waived at the government's discretion.

Van Slyke said the lack of any system of appeal short of bringing a civil lawsuit is a real shortcoming in state law. It is a tremendous burden on citizens to bring a state or local agency to circuit court just to get access to a record.

It is not that way in every state. Some states, like Connecticut and Utah, have special commissions to which citizens can appeal if they are denied records. Other states, like Arizona, Iowa and Georgia, either have public records ombudsmen or give the state's attorney general authority to intervene.

Such an intermediate step might have been useful to Jack Ryan, executive editor of the McComb Enterprise Journal. In 2007, the newspaper joined with Southwest Broadcasting Inc., a local radio broadcast company, and took the city of McComb to court over a violation of the state's open meetings law.

The newspaper and the broadcast company alleged McComb Mayor Zach Patterson and the city's Board of Selectmen had violated state law by meeting in closed session to vote on pay raises for city employees, increased police patrols in high-crime areas and the creation of a new city department. The city settled the lawsuit in August, agreeing to pay $9,600 to the plaintiffs to cover a portion of the legal fees involved in bringing the suit.

Patterson, who does not have a vote on the board, opposed the decision, as did Selectman Melvin Joe Johnson, who cast the lone vote against settling.

Johnson told the Enterprise-Journal any violation of the law was unintentional. The city board had said it was entering closed session to discuss personnel issues.

Ryan said he was reluctant to sue the city and first tried talking to Patterson, who took office in January 2007, about the newspaper's concerns. The raises and other measures represented a pretty big expenditure for the city of about $13,600, he said.

"People need to know if the city can afford this," he said.

When city officials did not budge, the media companies filed suit. Ryan said he felt like he had no choice.

"To let that go is to basically say, 'You can do this whenever you want,' " he said.

Brent Cox, public education coordinator for the Mississippi branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he has found public officials in Mississippi typically react badly when questioned about violations of the state's Public Records and Open Meetings laws. He attributes that to a history of secrecy in the state and the hurdles set up in state law to discourage citizens from pressing their rights.

"People don't have the time or money to begin a lawsuit against a government body," he said. "We're willing to do it, but you shouldn't have to go through the ACLU to get a public document."

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