Uh, Oh! An Idea Was Committed

Faced with catastrophic funding cuts for historically black universities and the Governor’s call to merge them, Ron Mason did what any thoughtful university president should do. He put together ideas on what a merger of JSU, ASU, and MVSU might look like and how it could best work.

Then he dared to ask others to thoughtfully consider his ideas.

Boom! Mason’s “idea” was leaked to the press.

Bam! An open records request to JSU sought a copy of Mason’s presentation and/or emails.

Kazaam! Mason is labeled a heretic, his “proposal” trashed, and legislators and College Board trustees reel from incited masses.

But Mason stuck by his intellectual integrity, saying a merger would be preferable to “dying apart;” that unified the institutions could rise up like the fabled phoenix to better compete for higher education dollars.

A concept worth reflection, but with the media fanning the frenzy, thoughtful consideration, and the phoenix, flew out the window.

“I’ve looked at life from both sides now.” That line from the Joni Mitchell classic resounds in my head as I ponder open meetings, records, and abuses.

In the 1970s I blasted supervisors for meeting and voting in secret, then hiding results until minutes were made public weeks or months later. I, like others, was ousted from public meetings because officials did not want the press in attendance. And so, I joined in the fight for the first open meetings law in Mississippi. Much progress was made and many abuses halted.

More recently I served with executive agencies and faced legal, personnel, and management issues best handled out of the public spotlight. The open meetings law properly provides exceptions for such, balancing the public’s right to know with officials’ needs to discuss some issues privately and third party’s rights to confidentiality.

While some officials continue to abuse the law, some media abuse public officials for meeting “in secret” when in fact they meet in lawful, properly noticed, executive sessions.

The public records law was intended to give the public access to official records. The Mississippi Supreme Court reasonably broadened the law to cover “records of all public bodies of government.”

Now comes the concept that all ideas put in writing by public officials, like Mason’s ideas, are public records.

It’s one thing to troll computers to see if a misdeed was committed. It’s quite another to troll them to see if an idea was committed.

When “openness” closes off reflection and stifles ideas, the pendulum has swung too far. Mason’s extraordinary and insightful idea presentation had a ways to go before it became a “public record.”

I’ve looked at both sides now.

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