A newspaper editorial written to coincide with the secrecy series currently being presented by the Mississippi Press Association through member newspapers all over the state, attempted to sum up the state’s secrecy situation by asking, What needs to be secret about a meeting of any duly constituted governmental body? Secrecy in the conduct of public business protects nothing and no one except special interests.
While in agreement with that part of the editorial cited, with the exception of qualifying a governmental body as only those duly constituted, the comments of two individuals in this region of the state and with whom the newspaper writing the editorial is connected, made it impossible to not comment about the secrecy problems in Northeast Mississippi, as well as the hypocrisy that created it. That hypocrisy generates and nurtures the secrecy of actions of an elite few as they decide how to dispose of the public’s money and affect the social, economic and political fabric of Northeast Mississippi.
Tom Wicker, a media attorney in Tupelo, recently commented, Who makes sure what is public is public? He answers himself, The public does. A good answer for public consumption, but not the answer that might be given behind the closed doors of a 501c3 non-profit quasi-governmental organization similar to those that seem to proliferate in Northeast Mississippi and much like the one Mr. Wicker represents.
It appears that not long ago, the 501c3 non-profit organizations allowed by the Internal Revenue Service were discovered, not for the charitable, responsible service to the public as intended by the IRS, but for political and ideological advocacy groups to hide behind while they manipulate duly constituted governmental bodies into transferring the taxpayers dollars over to them to do with what they wish without accountability. These organizations, formed for noble-sounding reasons, steeped in language might well be heard in revival meetings, use the protections of the IRS rules and regulations of a 501c3 non-profit organization to hide behind when it comes to open meetings, open records and to being responsible for the use of the public’s money.
In response to the recent dispute between Governor Haley Barbour and Mississippi Coast legislators over the Governor’s desire to use Katrina relief money to build roads in Northeast Mississippi, David Rumbarger, Chief Executive Officer of the Community Development Foundation of Tupelo, one of the many 501c3 non-profit quasi-governmental organizations proporting to represent the will of the people, said, Roads mean jobs. That’s the bottom line. Such a comment is not representative of the attitude of the people of Northeast Mississippi in regard to the continuing cleanup and assistance needed by Katrina-affected people on the coast. However, if the quasi-governmental agencies that represent us without accountability get their hands on the money, roads will be built, some jobs will be created and many will go without promised relief after the hurricane. The meetings to make those decisions will be closed. Your money will be diverted and used for purposes over which you will have no say.
At the same time, these quasi-governmental agencies are coercing duly constituted government agencies to allow them to provide services to the public that would normally be up for bid by private enterprise and forcing the public to pay for services of a quality less than available while locking public expenditures into contracts with other quasi-governmental enterprises of equally questionable legitimacy.
The use and abuse of 501c3 non-profit organizations to create quasi-governmental agencies to cloak the actions of special interests who seek power and influence, to make money off the government and the taxpayers while being accountable to no one, and to gain benefit over all others, can only be addressed through the state legislature which is made up of many of these same kinds of special interests and through the Internal Revenue Service. These quasi-governmental agencies are involved with local and county politics to the point that the public has little sway over what decisions are made or where their money is spent. The secrecy adopted by these quasi-governmental agencies personifies the very reasons why open meeting and open record laws exist and why Mississippi needs a legislature with enough courage to face up to the special interests to stop the secrecy and serve the citizens once again.