Special Report: Behind closed doors part 2 - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Special Report: Behind closed doors part 2

(Photo source: WLOX) (Photo source: WLOX)
(Photo source: WLOX) (Photo source: WLOX)

The act of closing the doors on the public appears to be quite common on the Gulf Coast. Discussing personnel and potential litigation are the most commonly used reasons for meeting in secret.

That's also the case in Hancock County. Supervisors held 40 meetings in 2014 and went into executive session 32 times, a rate of 80 percent. Supervisors say they follow the letter of the law and also realize they are open to criticism, but some offer a challenge.

One of them is board president Lisa Cowand.

“If you're an elected official, you're an easy target. I guess my question to the public would be how many public meetings have you truly attended in your lifetime to see exactly what transpires in a public meeting,” Cowand said.

There seems to be a public perception of mistrust of local government. How do I know that? Well, I did a very informal and unscientific survey.

I asked 30 men and women, of all ages and races, whether they trusted local government and whether they thought it was too secretive. 27 out of 30 said yes.

Here's an example of what some said, including Robert Payne.

“Probably in their minds it's for good reason, but in the long run, the more open all of this is and the more above board it stays, the less trouble they all get into,” Payne said.

“It's the times we're living in and what information they can get and hide to benefit themselves,” said Ya Ya Muhammad-El

Christie Hodge is hungry for information from elected officials.

“Probably more of everything. Just what goes on instead of it just being a secret and then, all of a sudden, there are new rules and whatnot,” Hodge explained.

Those answers don't surprise attorney and open government advocate Henry Laird.

“The public correctly interprets that the government is not theirs,” said Laird.

Should the law be changed to make it tougher to meet behind closed doors, take away some of the 12 exemptions that allow for executive sessions? Cowand weighed in on that debate.

“It's something that might need to be looked at. We'll abide by the rules and the laws. That's all we can do,” said Cowand.

Some, including Laird, say the mindset has to change before any real progress towards transparent government is made.

“Government sometimes thinks they can do a better job behind closed doors, so it needs to be more open than it has been,” said Laird.

Almost every elected board or appointed commission has to abide by the state open meetings law. There is one notable exception.

Boards of trustees for publicly owned hospitals are allowed to meet in secret. That could be changing though, in light of the financial mess that has surfaced in the past year at Singing River Health System.

State Sen. Brice Wiggins, of Pascagoula, has filed a bill that would require trustees to meet in public. That bill is making its way through the legislature.

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