Despite a weeklong public awareness campaign by newspapers across the state last month, attempts to pierce Mississippi's official veil of secrecy continue to be a hit-and-miss endeavor.
hree recent efforts by The Clarion-Ledger to obtain public records from officials in Hinds and Madison counties and Jackson Public Schools met with resistance with the officials claiming unconventional exemptions and trying to put a costly price tag on the information without explaining why.
Jeanni Atkins, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, said Mississippi officials historically have been reluctant to share information with the public and the press. The Legislature is reviewing several measures to strengthen the state's sunshine laws, but changing attitudes will take longer, she said.
"This culture of secrecy is very ingrained. It's been very encouraging that some of the new, young legislators are very open to the idea of giving access to the public," she said.
As part of the series examining Mississippi's open-government practices, The Clarion-Ledger attempted to access a wide variety of documents to test official attitudes toward public-records laws. One of the thornier requests went to new Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith and state Attorney General Jim Hood for their files on Jackson Mayor Frank Melton.
Melton and his two police bodyguards were indicted in 2006 on a variety of charges related to his police-style tactics. Two separate trials ended with Melton pleading guilty to misdemeanor weapons charges and a jury verdict of not guilty on felony charges related to a raid on an alleged drug house.
Smith was an attorney on Melton's defense team in Melton's felony trial last March and was elected district attorney later in the year, defeating District Attorney Faye Peterson.
While Hood ordered his staff to release virtually all of the documents from his investigation, Smith denied the paper's request, citing a clause in state law exempting records pertaining to a criminal investigation. In a letter, Smith wrote that while the Melton case "has been characterized as a closed file," The Clarion-Ledger has written numerous stories regarding a federal grand jury investigation into the mayor's activities.
"Accordingly, we are bound by the statute to deny your request," he wrote.