This week, news outlets across the country are observing Sunshine Week, an annual reminder of the importance of open government and unfettered access to public information.
Sunshine Week is centered around another annual event: the March 16 Freedom of Information Day. FOI Day celebrates the Freedom of Information Act, which became effective in 1967 and allowed unprecedented public access to federal government records.
FOIA and its state equivalents, along with other laws providing for open access to government meetings and public records, are collectively referred to as sunshine laws.
As an aside, FOI Day is celebrated in March because the 16th is the birthday of James Madison, the founding father and fourth president. He was an early supporter of checks and balances as well as open government. Perhaps his most famous quote about the issue of government transparency is this: Democracy without information is “…but prologue to a farce or a tragedy.”
Sunshine laws hold public officials accountable. These regulations — fought for and won through sometimes prolonged court and legislative battles — are critical to the efficient and honest operation of government.
The press widely celebrates these laws, but any citizen can take full advantage of them. Interestingly enough, only about 10% of FOIA requests come from news organizations. The vast majority of such requests come from an engaged, interested and watchful citizenry.
As a journalist, I am passionate about the need for government transparency at all levels. Sunshine Week offers an opportunity to be grateful for those officials — elected or appointed — who commit to openness in government and give the concept more than just lip service during a campaign season.
The Pine Belt News covers two county governments and five municipal governments. I am pleased to report that most of our local officials get high marks in my informal and solely in my head Sunshine Week transparency progress report.
One positive example can be found in the administration of Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker, who has hired highly qualified individuals like Samantha McCain, the city’s chief communications officer, and Ryan Moore, the public information officer for the Hattiesburg Police Department, to assist the media — and the public at large — in accessing accurate and open city information.
Another good example can be found in the Friendly City. I doubt anyone will be surprised when I say Petal Mayor Hal Marx, known for his controversial social media comments, is an outspoken man. However, he is always quick to respond to our requests, and his responses are detailed and honest. Marx is not seeking another term in office, and I hope his successor is as transparent as the outgoing mayor.
Thankfully, there are many other local officials — ranging from aldermen and council members to county supervisors, county administrators, city clerks, law enforcement authorities, coroners and beyond — who “go the extra mile” in making public information accessible and in being available for questions about the goings-on in our communities. We send all of you a Sunshine Week hat tip.
I would be remiss if I left you with the impression that every government official we cover is always forthcoming with public information. That is not the case, and I experienced my first big taste of that last year during an extended dispute with the Mississippi State Department of Health over their COVID-19 data and public reports.
The contention started in April. It was the height of the pandemic, and Health Department officials were reporting — through a daily data dump on their website — an alarming number of positive cases and deaths at Forrest County long-term care facilities, a classification that includes nursing homes and other places where vulnerable populations live.
Officials provided no further information on the cases. We believed that casualty counts — without knowing the names of affected facilities or any other details — did nothing but stoke fear and uncertainty. Family members with loved ones in local nursing homes were turning to us for information, and we were unable to help them. It was incredibly frustrating and heart-wrenching.
The Health Department refused to release the facility names and instead sent us a terse statement: “We are not sharing individual information regarding those facilities. Those that need to know have been notified.”
Requests from other news outlets were met with similar resistance. We found support from the AARP, which demanded the state release the names of the affected facilities in the interest of transparency and to allow family members to make informed decisions about care for their loved ones.
Despite increasing pressure from families, news outlets and outside groups, the department stood firm in its refusal. I filed a public records request for the names of the affected facilities, and, to make a long story short, the department missed the state-mandated deadline to reply.
We advanced the matter to the Mississippi Ethics Commission, enforcer of the state’s various sunshine laws, but were told it would be months before the commission could act on our case. With no other speedy remedies at our disposal and a public anxiously awaiting information on the rising death toll, we filed a lawsuit against the department.
Tiffany Grove, a Hinds County judge, ruled in our favor. The department was ordered to reply to our request and to release the names of the affected facilities. Within days, officials posted the names of every long-term care facility in the state with a COVID-19 case or death.
We used this information to paint the full portrait of what was going on in local facilities. We launched an in-depth investigation into a Hattiesburg nursing home that was a hot spot for the highly contagious virus, and we were able to get answers for family members and a concerned public.
The Pine Belt News is proud to advocate for government transparency. As the local watchdog for public bodies, we will continue to hold our officials accountable, and we will do so with the help of sunshine laws. Take a moment this week to consider their importance and their value to our constitutional republic.
Joshua Wilson is the editor at Hattiesburg Publishing, which produces The Pine Belt News and Signature Magazine.