- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:

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April 16

The Sun Herald on the Open Meetings Act:

Governments across the Coast, consider Diamondhead’s violation of the Open Meetings Act your fair warning.

Last week, the Mississippi Ethics Commission ruled Diamondhead and State Auditor Stacey Pickering violated the law when four of the city’s five council members met in secret to discuss a performance audit. Councilman Ernie Knobloch said councilmen agreed to the meeting after Pickering told them it was legal.

Diamondhead is a young city, we understand that, and we can excuse this violation. This time. Pickering should have known better. He is in his third term, after all. Now, presumably, he does.

We commend Mayor Tommy Schafer and Councilwoman Nancy Depreo, who were excluded from the meeting, for calling out the infraction.

We know there are those rare times when officials need to discuss matters behind closed doors. The key word is rare. And the meeting in Diamondhead wasn’t one of those times.

Excluding the public from discussions about policy is rarely a good idea. Someone in the audience just might have a helpful idea or insight. In other words, the officials just might learn something from the audience. Of course, they also might have to endure the occasional crank. We believe it would be worth it.

The “we didn’t know any better” excuse is no longer valid. There is a wealth of information out there to guide public officials. The Ethics Commission and the Attorney General’s Office are just a phone call or an email away. The law isn’t that complicated.

As Attorney General Jim Hood says on his web page dedicated to the Open Meetings Laws, “The best protection for public officials is to have a good working knowledge of the laws, and the exceptions that apply.”

We expect officials to err on the side of keeping the residents who pay their salaries and fund their operating budgets in the loop.

We urge residents who care about good government to take advantage of a wealth of knowledge contained in the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information website, mcfoi.org. Don’t be afraid to challenge officials who seem to be a little too secretive. It’s your right.

We agree with the Ethics Commission’s decision not to add any punishment to his decision. And we expect there to be no next time that would merit punishment.

Online: https://www.sunherald.com/

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April 16

The Hattiesburg American on budget cuts for Mississippi community colleges:

Budget cuts have almost become a way of life at Mississippi’s community and junior colleges.

Take for instance Pearl River Community College. President William Lewis said PRCC’s budget was cut by the state four times in 2016-17, and it suffered two cuts in federal funding for career-technical education for a total of about $1 million in reductions.

Now, the community college is looking at another 10.2 percent, or $1.5 million, cut from the state.

“A tuition increase is going to be necessary - I can’t say how much,” Lewis said. “We made a substantial cut in personnel this year, and we’re also going to have a significant reduction in force next year - possibly layoffs. It may not be possible to avoid that.”

PRCC officials also are looking at possibly eliminating some low-enrollment programs and moving some employees who have 12-month contracts to nine- or 10-month contracts.

“We’re kind of at the end of the road as far as we can go,” Lewis said. “I wish I could put a positive spin on it, but it’s different this time.”

The situation isn’t any better up Interstate 59 at Jones County Junior College. Already having suffered about $1.2 million in cuts, JCJC is now looking at another 11.6 percent, or $1.635 million, cut.

JCJC President Jesse Smith said layoffs and tuition increases are both possibilities.

“It’s going to hurt our students,” he said. “Some people aren’t going to be able to afford a two-year education. There is extreme price sensitivity to tuition - a few dollars of changes are significant to families.”

Mississippi lawmakers often talk about the need to improve Mississippi’s educational standing. They’re also quick to point out that having a better-educated workforce could help the state attract better-paying jobs.

But these continued cuts to education aren’t the way to move Mississippi from the bottom to the top.

Education is a key part of improving the future for everyone in Mississippi. A better-educated workforce would positively impact everyone.

At some point, funding education - K-12, community colleges and universities - has to become a priority.

According to the Mississippi Community College Board’s website, “Mississippi’s community and junior colleges offer a wide variety of curriculum, trades and professional training opportunities to meet everyone’s need at an affordable cost.”

But what happens when that cost is no longer affordable?

Among Smith’s fears is that some prospective students will give up on education and end up in dead-end, low-wage jobs - for life.

“I’ve never lost so much sleep over something,” he said. “I just can’t imagine what’s going to happen to some of these families.

“We don’t know how long the slump is going to be. It’s very tenuous ground to be standing on.”

Mississippi’s educational and economic futures depend on the community colleges, just as they do K-12 schools and universities. The state is setting itself up for more hard times ahead if budget cuts like these continue.

Online: https://www.hattiesburgamerican.com/

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April 17

The McComb Enterprise-Journal on advice from the state auditor:

Two months ago this space stated: “State Auditor Stacey Pickering has no business giving advice about what Mississippi’s sunshine laws demand, as he obviously either doesn’t understand them or doesn’t respect their intent.”

That opinion was vindicated recently by the state Ethics Commission, which found that four members of the Diamondhead City Council, acting on the advice of Pickering, broke the law when they met behind closed doors with him.

At the time of this blatantly illegal meeting, Pickering ignored the objections of the Diamondhead mayor and the subsequent questioning of the Biloxi Sun Herald newspaper. He said that the secret session couldn’t be a violation of the state Open Meetings Act because that law didn’t apply to him.

Hopefully Pickering has read the law in the two months since. It’s pretty explicit about who is exempt from its coverage. The state auditor is not on that exemption list.

If this were a one-time mistake, it would be one thing. It is, though, part of a pattern with Pickering of ignoring or trying to skirt transparency when it suits his purpose.

A few years ago, he was sanctioned by a state judge for collaborating in an effort to keep some business records of the Department of Marine Resources out of the hands of the Sun Herald, which had been investigating corruption within that agency.

Although the state Court of Appeals later nullified the sanction, it didn’t nullify what Pickering tried to do: hinder the Gulf Coast newspaper’s effort to expose the theft and squandering of the public’s money.

In 2016, when The Clarion-Ledger was digging into the records of public officials who were using campaign donations for personal expenses, Pickering was one of the offenders. He paid for two vehicles, including an RV that the family used for trips to Disney World, and a home garage door out of his campaign funds.

How many of his other expenditures were questionable was hard to say, because he avoided detailing a lot of them by charging tens of thousands of dollars to credit cards without providing any itemization - a practice that recently enacted campaign finance reforms will outlaw.

The state auditor is supposed to be a watchdog of the public’s money and assets, making sure they are not misspent. That role should make him a champion of transparency - not someone who personally tries to hide what he’s doing and advises others on how to do it.

Online: https://www.enterprise-journal.com/

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