Sunday marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, when news organizations attempt to raise the public’s awareness of the importance of open government to all Americans.
Whether it’s understanding how public money is being spent or what decisions are being made by the government that could affect your life, such knowledge depends on a largely unfettered access of the citizenry, including the news media, to public records and public meetings.
Mississippi has decent sunshine laws, but definitely not the strongest in the country. There are too many exceptions and exemptions, and they are routinely abused by the people in power.
A good case in point is the fight that the Clarion Ledger is having with the Mississippi Department of Human Services for a copy of an internal audit that reportedly blew the whistle on a multimillion-dollar embezzlement within that agency.
So far, DHS has refused to release the audit, saying it is exempt from disclosure because of a pending investigation into the fraud, for which the former head of DHS and five others have been indicted.
Although it’s true that the Mississippi Public Records Act does include an exemption for documents pertaining to an ongoing criminal investigation, that exemption only applies to documents created by a law enforcement agency. DHS is not such an animal.
State Auditor Shad White, who worked with the Hinds County District Attorney’s Office to secure theindictments, does not appear to have a problem with the audit being made public.
He told the Jackson newspaper that although it is not his agency’s responsibility to resolve public records disputes, he has encouraged DHS to “be as transparent as possible unless there is a clear exception to the public records act that applies.”
The Mississippi Ethics Commission, which does have enforcement authority for the Public Records Act, may need to weigh in.
It shouldn’t have to. Even if the exemption were to apply, it is not obligatory for a public body to invoke it.
Most government bodies are free to release any records they want, with only a few specific exceptions, such as personnel records.
If DHS is serious about cleaning up its house, it should welcome the cleansing effect that full public disclosure brings.