Editorial 1/23/2015

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 23, 2015

Chassiniol’s bills put more public business behind closed doors

Scarcely has the dust settled from the opening of the 2015 session of the Mississippi Legislature when word comes about two Senate bills introduced to seriously weaken the state’s Open Meetings law.

SB 2352 and SB 2489, both introduced by Senator Lydia Chassiniol (R., Winona), would make it easier for elected officials to meet behind close doors, away from public scrutiny. The major impact of the bills is that they would allow “rolling quorums” or mini-meetings to be held in secret to allow discussion of sensitive issues before they are brought into the open.

Proponents of transparency in government are justifiably alarmed. The Senate bills are designed to skirt the very circumstances that columnist Charles Mitchell describes in the adjacent column.

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Simply put, if some county’s supervisors or some city’s aldermen wanted to issue $15 million in bonds to finance the construction of a historic perfume museum, for instance, they could get together two-by-two (three is a quorum) to hear the pitch of the snake oil salesman who is trying to put this over on taxpayers without the issue ever coming up for public discussion.

Then, when the issue is brought up in the public meeting with the quorum present, the supervisors or aldermen would have little to discuss and could vote to issue the bonds with winks and nods around the table, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.

“You are either opposed to open and honest government, or you’re in favor of it,” Will Bardwell, a Jackson attorney and president of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information told the Jackson Jambalya political website. “It certainly appears that Sen. Chassaniol has come down on the side opposing open and honest government.”

Senator Chassaniol will be seeking this year re-election support from Panola County voters from the Pope, Eureka and South Springport precincts (along with precints in Yalobusha and Tallahatchie Counties as well as precincts in five additional counties to the south, stretching to Attala). The Senator owes those voters whose support she is seeking for re-election an explanation of just what she was thinking when she filed these bills.

Fortunately, for the remainder of the 2015 session of the Mississippi Legislature, Steve Hale of Senatobia will represent Panola County in the Senate. Hale serves both on the Senate Judiciary, Division A Committee and the Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee, two of the committees to which these bills have been referred.

And fortunately, Senator Hale has always proved to respect open and honest government at all levels.
Senator Hale, we respectfully request that you help see that these attacks on the public’s right to know die the ignominious deaths they deserve.