Meaningless threats, no punishment

By By Sid Salter
April 3, 2002
Ever heard a parent try to make an unruly child behave with empty threats? Junior is busy cutting the heads off Little Sister's dolls with a larger pair of garden shears.
Junior calmly, methodically continues the beheadings.
The pile of headless Barbies grows ever larger. The idle threats continue. At some point, you just want to grab the parent and shout: "OK, lady, so spank him already or shut up!"
The point is that the unenforced threat of a penalty for bad behavior is worthless in terms of changing one's behavior. Just ask Junior. Just ask Ed Blackmon.
No punishment available
There's a law in Mississippi against public officials meeting in secret or without proper public notice. The law regulates what public bodies can do behind closed doors (executive sessions) and what must be done in front of the public.
Open meetings legislation was adopted in 1976. The law is sound and the law is on the books to protect the rights of citizens. But there's one problem. There's no enforcement provision.
If a citizen catches a public official violating the open meetings laws, there's no legal provision to punish him. You can sue the public official and win your point on the law months after the illegal action has taken place but there's no legal way to fine a public official for breaking the law.
That public official gets away with breaking the law like the little boy cutting the heads off his sister's dolls with nothing but meaningless threats and no punishment.
Does that matter? I don't know. You tell me.
Remember the pay raise?
Remember when the Legislature tried to sneak in a pay raise behind the backs of the taxpayers? Open meetings and open records laws helped make that fact public.
County supervisors and city councils across Mississippi do a reasonably good job of obeying the laws. But there are some hardcore exceptions around the state in which county and municipal officials regularly break the laws regarding secret meetings and action taken illegally behind closed doors.
Why? Because they can get away with it and there's no way they can be legally punished for it and they know it.
A bill to fine violators of the open meetings laws died Monday when legislative conferees decided to kill it. The bill would have provided a paltry $100 fine against violators, but would have authorized the courts to award attorneys' fees and court costs to parties bringing suit against public officials for open meetings violations.
Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, offered this tortured logic to the Associated Press: "I just didn't want to put these people in small towns at risk of having unexpected expenses that might run into thousands of dollars. Under the bill, you could inadvertently violate the act and the court could award those costs plus the fine."
Boo-hoo-hoo, Ed. Here's a Kleenex.
Are people in small towns not entitled to see the public's business done in accordance with the law? Does Mr. Blackmon really think small town public officials are too ignorant to read, understand and obey the very straightforward open meetings laws that are on the books?
Most do. Why shouldn't all the rest?
In killing this bill, Blackmon and the rest of the conferees provided a safe haven for public officials to continue to violate the open meetings laws with impunity because there's still no punishment for breaking them. Like the misbehaving youngster, they'll keep on doing as they please until they are punished.

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