Some officials strive for open government

Published 12:05 am Sunday, January 31, 2010

TUPELO (AP) — While much of Mississippi government is comfortably shrouded in secrecy, some public officials go out of their way to make meetings and records accessible to the public.

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, for instance, champions governmental transparency by putting public records online, broadcasting public meetings and inviting citizens to the table.

Other champions of sunshine government include Gulfport Police Chief Alan Weatherford, Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr., Holly Springs Mayor Andre’ DeBerry and state Rep. Joseph Warren, D-Mount Olive.

Together, they’ve cracked open the door that sometimes separates politicians from the people who elected them.

But it’s not always easy. Presley, elected in 2007, has faced heavy opposition from his colleagues in the state Public Service Commission in trying to broadcast group’s regular meetings online. He won half the battle — opening the meetings to citizens and broadcasting the public hearings — but regular meetings still aren’t online. Presley’s critics say he’s quick to seek self-serving publicity.

Presley calls the open meetings ‘‘a monumental shift on how the PSC does business.’’

‘‘Politicians — me included — spend a lot of time telling people what we’ll do if you elect us,’’ the 32-year-old said. ‘‘Well, you ought to be able to see what we do when we’re in office. The public has a right to know.’’

Presley also thinks utility cooperatives need more transparency and regulation, and he has led an effort to regulate and publicize their board elections and to force a full disclose of their finances.

It hasn’t been without controversy, though. And sometimes, Presley said, ‘‘it seems like you’re banging you head on the wall.’’

Not everyone has met such resistance. Weatherford, who became Gulfport’s police chief in 2006, hasn’t heard any complaints about his efforts to meet residents or publicize crime trends. The chief and his officers visit different neighborhoods once weekly to meet people and hear their concerns. He also posts quarterly and annual crime summary reports online.

And by early this year, Weatherford said, residents will be able to sign up for e-mail and text alerts notifying them instantly if crime happens in their areas.

‘‘There is no downside,’’ the chief said. ‘‘I don’t see one reason why this shouldn’t be accessible to the citizens.’’

Tupelo’s new mayor shares the same philosophy. One of his first actions upon taking office in mid 2009 was hiring the city’s first communications director and posting City Council agendas, minutes and videos online.

Reed also has launched a municipal Facebook page and started posting short messages through the online service Twitter.

But ‘‘among the most significant changes was the opening of the budget decision-making process to the press,’’ Reed said, ‘‘because, really, that’s where the rubber meets the road as far as where taxpayer dollars are going.’’

Even in smaller towns like Holly Springs, transparency is a key element in local government. Since DeBerry became mayor nine years ago, this city of roughly 8,000 residents has had more access to Town Hall.

Meetings of the board of aldermen now air on a public-access channel, and each meeting opens with a public forum, DeBerry said. And though the town doesn’t yet have a municipal Web site, it did hire a technology director to move in that direction.

‘‘When there is a cloak of cover people tend to be suspicious,’’ DeBerry said, explaining the moves.

Warren, a south Mississippi legislator, wrote the bill that eventually was enacted into law as the Mississippi Accountability and Transparency Act of 2008. It requires the Department of Finance and Administration to post state-fund expenditure information online for the public.

The move was lauded by open-government advocates nationwide, including the National Taxpayers Union, which released this statement upon its passage: ‘‘Transparency is a fundamental aspect of a government for the people and by the people. Mississippians can take pride in the fact that their state is holding true to the principles that have made this country great.’’