The Mississippi laws that require public entities to meet in public and maintain open records for public inspection have been strengthened.
The state Legislature changed the law governing public meetings to make individuals accountable for any violations, rather than the public body.
Supporters of the change, which included the Mississippi Press Association and the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, argued that the previous law was a fine levied against taxpayers because the public body was liable for it.
Under the revised law, an individual who violates the law would have to pay the fine out of his or her own pocket, said Leonard Van Slyke, a lawyer who does work for both the press association and the Freedom of Information Center.
The fine is $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for each offense thereafter. A violator also would have to pay the legal expenses of whoever brought the complaint.
“The dollars involved would make members of a public body think twice before voting to improperly close a meeting,” Van Slyke said.
The records act was improved by clarifying that failure to allow a public record to be inspected is punishable by a $100 fine for each offense.
The old law was unclear about whether only one $100 fine could be levied, even for multiple offenses.
The law also requires violators to pay legal expenses of the person who successfully challenges a governmental entity..
The Gazette supports these changes that should help improve openness in our state and local public governmental entities. These changes benefit all citizens in our state.