Mississippi editorial roundup
Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:
The Dispatch on local officials’ differing approaches to transparency:
For some misguided officials, open records laws appear to be merely a tool they wield to shield actions from public view in some cases or to punish those who have fallen out of favor in others.
The recent approaches to a pair of incidents involving two Columbus city councilmen call into question exactly how the city chooses when to be open with information.
In one case, the city was more than willing, even eager, to share information on an incident involving one council member. In the other case, it appears the city is doing everything within its power to delay and/or withhold information on another council member, who has since retired.
In October, Ward 5 councilman Stephen Jones was implicated, but never charged, in an embezzlement scheme in which a cashier at Bargain Hunt was accused of giving away thousands of dollars in merchandise to Jones and several other customers.
Once information was gathered, the city called a press conference, providing media with details of the police department’s investigation, including un-redacted investigative reports. Upon request, the city seemed eager to also provide the store surveillance footage of Jones.
City officials made note of their willingness to share this information with the public as a sign of their transparency, and The Dispatch applauded their actions.
Contrast that to what is happening now in respect to efforts to learn whether Ward 4 councilman Frederick Jackson, who resigned abruptly on July 3, received a sweetheart deal for use of the taxpayer-owned Trotter Convention Center.
Suffice to say, the city did not call a press conference to release that information.
Instead, the city has attempted to block access to Trotter records concerning Jackson’s rental of the facility. A city employee attempted to prevent Dispatch managing editor Zack Plair from photographing Jackson’s rental agreement, which is allowed under open record laws, and eventually called the police, which led to Plair’s arrest. That charge remains pending.
The documents showed Jackson’s rental agreement initially was for $625, half the normal rate. The $625 was marked through and $1,400 was hand-written above it.
In an effort to follow up on that story, The Dispatch filed a public records request seeking to learn whether Jackson’s payment cleared the bank. The city has sought to discourage that effort, primarily through exceeding legal deadlines to respond to the request and by quoting questionable charges to provide the information. The city estimated it would take $109.18 to provide the four pieces of paper we requested. A breakdown of those charges was not provided — even upon request — but included research time, computer usage fees, copy fees and presumably multiple hours of work by the city’s chief financial officer.
In phone and email exchanges between Dispatch publisher Peter Imes, public information officer Joe Dillon and city attorney Jeff Turnage, Imes agreed to pay the fee but requested the ability to verify the way the charges were assessed. Turnage denied the request.
It should be noted ... city Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong intervened in the records request standoff between Imes and Turnage and provided the requested documents free of charge.
How does the city account for its wildly disparate handling of these two incidents?
How do the citizens of Columbus benefit from the city’s efforts to deny the public, through our reporting, information about the possible misuse of a taxpayer owned facility?
It appears the city’s administration views public records laws as shields to protect its own or swords to punish those who have fallen out of power.
These laws are neither meant to protect nor to punish, but to preserve a promise to citizens to conduct city business in an open, transparent and fair way.
The Daily Journal on the possibility of eliminating laws banning panhandling:
As part of a national effort that includes work to end and prevent homelessness, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi is asking 16 cities in the state to eliminate local laws that penalize panhandling.
Four cities in the state have repealed panhandling ordinances since a federal appeals court in 2015 ruled that an ordinance in Springfield, Illinois, penalized people for begging for money in public places was unconstitutional.
Among the 16 cities is Corinth whose city ordinance states that “No person shall stand in the roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride, employment, contribution, or business from the occupant of any vehicle.”
The ACLU argues in a news release ... that these ordinances punish people for being homeless and asking for help.
The anti-panhandling laws were mostly designed as safety measures to protect motorists and those in need. There must be some ability to restrict people from being in proximity to moving vehicles and possibly causing an accident.
Maybe the best way to handle the situation is to find solutions that discourage this activity. In Louisville, KY, the city worked in conjunction with a day shelter and started taking panhandlers off the street and paying them cash to work. Reports indicate that the program has taken 85 percent of the panhandlers off the street.
Instead of focusing on the constitutionality of these ordinances, we should be looking for solutions. Last year, 78 homeless individuals were identified in Tupelo compared to 57 the previous year.
If churches, organizations, and the community come together in a concerted effort to address the issue to help the person, everyone wins. It is better to teach people how to do something themselves than to just do it for them.
The Greenwood Commonwealth on cooling a football rivalry between Mississippi State and Ole Miss:
The Southeastern Conference has gotten rightly concerned that the football rivalry between Mississippi State and Ole Miss has gotten out of hand.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has met with officials from both schools to discuss the Egg Bowl’s bad blood, which spilled over last year into a brawl that resulted in the ejection of four players.
When players lose their cool on the field, the danger is that it can spill over into the stands, where inebriated fans don’t need any encouragement to do something stupid.
Those with calm heads — such as the presidents and athletic directors of both schools — should take steps to put a lid on it.