Why hide something when there’s nothing to hide?
Published 10:09 am Tuesday, November 22, 2016
If the town council in Laurel decides new lights are needed at the city sports complex, the request for bids, the bids and the contract with the company hired to install the lights will all be public records.
Anyone who asks can see them.
To assure citizens that everything is above board, that a reasonable deal has been struck with a qualified installer. It is the people’s money, after all.
Who says it has to be this way?
The Mississippi Legislature.
If the governor sends an email to the Department of Transportation asking when the stripes on I-220 will be repainted, the governor’s email is a public record.
Because the Legislature defines records as any “prepared, possessed or retained for use in the conduct, transaction of any business, transaction, work, duty or function of any public body” or are “required to be maintained by any public body.” That’s Section 25-61-3(b). The section also says records are records “regardless of physical form or characteristics.” In Mississippi, as in other states, public records include data files, emails and even texts if they are related to public business.
What about the Legislature (or a subset thereof) entering a no-bid contract with a consultant? Is that a public record?
No, of course not.
Who says so?
Well, that would be the Legislature (or a subset thereof).
No reason, no reason at all.
Further, while the Management Committee has decreed that all lawmakers may review such contracts, it is absolutely forbidden for members to copy, photograph or share with anyone any contract’s provisions.
Mississippi’s legislature has, at times, been very open. When members, as in the fictional Laurel example, realize that the best way to deal with questions about accountability is to be accountable, they are “transparent.”
In recent years — and in the face of a highly pro-openness governor of the same party — the Legislature, especially the leadership, has time and again held itself above the people, adopted a, “Trust us; we’ll tell you what you need to know,” posture.
The new example is the deal no one knew about until it was done. The fledgling but qualified EdBuild firm was hired to see if there’s a better way to fund K-12 education in Mississippi and was guaranteed $250,000 for its research and report.
News organizations asked to see the contract. The Management Committee met (privately) and voted 6-3 to just say no.
Odds are the contract with EdBuild is about as scintillating as the one for lighting in Laurel. Odds are the provisions are what lawyers call “boilerplate” — recitations of what the EdBuild is to research and when and how it is to report and be paid.
But witness what the leadership has done. Some have attributed it to arrogance, but in the eyes of the press and the public, a plain old consulting contract has morphed into a “secret consulting contract.”
Up go the eyebrows.
As they should.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, known to lecture reporters on what is and what isn’t a story, announced the EdBuild contract a month or so ago. When he did he pledged inclusiveness on the discussion of any changes to education funding.
He knows (and has to know since this was the topic of a hard-fought constitutional battle a year ago) that the public is keenly attuned to this topic.
Yet mum’s the word.
In closing, let’s remember that Mississippi lawmakers opposed to the Affordable Care Act raised all kinds of sand when Congress quietly exempted itself from Obamacare. “Not fair,” came the shouts. “Hypocrites!”
Yet many of these same lawmakers give all city, county and state officials, all city county and state agencies and all city, county and state boards and commissions statutory orders to be open, transparent, accountable. Then they quietly exempt themselves.
Consider these lovely words:
“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….”
That’s the preamble to the Open Meetings Act. The Open Records Act demands that same spirit.
Written by the Legislature.
And applied to everyone but.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.