SuperTalk Mississippi

Opinion: Wildlife commission needs more sunshine as transparency concerns grow

Photo by SuperTalk Mississippi News

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks is entrusted with the responsibility of conserving and managing our state’s diverse wildlife, fisheries, and parks. Their work impacts not only the environment but also the economy, tourism, and the overall well-being of our communities. It is vital that the decisions and accompanying discussions made by the five-member commission be transparent and open to public scrutiny. Fundamentally, the work of the commission is a sacred trust. When public institutions like our wildlife commission operate in secrecy – which it appears, as I will highlight, too much of the commission’s work these days is discussed in backroom meetings out of the public view and is influenced too often by politics and the rich and powerful – it erodes the trust citizens have in their government.

In Mississippi, a violation of open meetings laws by a public body occurs when the public body (commission) fails to comply with the requirements set forth in the Mississippi Open Meetings Act. Let me discuss briefly Mississippi’s sunshine laws.

A “meeting” is deemed to occur when a quorum or majority of the members of that public body are gathered and discuss anything under their authority or jurisdiction (in this case, all wildlife, fisheries, and parks – including hunting, fishing, and conservation). The wildlife commission must provide proper, advance notice of ALL meetings, including the date, time, location, and agenda. According to sources, the wildlife commission routinely holds “meetings” before their official monthly public meeting. This is widely known by those close (and not so close) to the commission and has gone on for years. And it has been confirmed by former commissioners. There is a culture of discussing and debating issues as a group and one-on-one outside the public eye and, at times, coming to a decision or consensus prior to the public meeting. This is illegal.

A closed meeting cannot be held without a valid legal reason such as discussing personnel matters, pending litigation, or certain economic development issues. While in executive session, discussions unrelated to the stated reason cannot legally occur, and a member of the staff from the attorney general’s office must be present during these sessions.

The commission can’t prohibit or restrict public attendance and participation in their public meeting without proper justification. I have heard, but don’t have definitive proof, that some in the public have been denied opportunities to speak. I was told this in a text from MDWFP executive director Lynn Posey: “You can call or email the office and we will put you on the agenda or anyone can sign up at the meeting and be added. They usually limit comments to five minutes.” In terms of the five-minute rule, I have seen some politically connected members of the public and their friends be given unlimited time.

The commission must keep accurate and detailed minutes of ALL meetings. They are supposed to be recorded, but they have never had a court reporter or other person taking dictation. Intentionally omitting information can be a violation of law. Here’s an important point: If the commission regularly discusses topics that are part of the public trust offline, there is no record. Of important note, they did start videoing and publicly live-streaming their monthly public meetings after much outcry from the public and thanks in large part to Commissioner Billy Mounger’s insistence. You can watch most past meetings on their YouTube channel.

The commission should conduct their discussions and make decisions during open meetings. Making decisions through private communications or informal gatherings without public knowledge and input is a violation of law. But here’s another important point: By saying the commission should conduct discussions in open meetings, the law is protecting the public trust. This doesn’t mean a quorum of commission members has to be present for there to be an issue. All discussions involving matters of the public trust and wildlife, fisheries, and parks should be held in open meetings even if those discussions are one-on-one between commissioners. This point has been successfully litigated in Mississippi.

While there are legal and ethical considerations that are significant, operating in secrecy erodes and undermines public trust. The legitimacy of commission decisions will be challenged and should lead to a public outcry and demands for accountability, resulting in the reputation of the institution being tarnished. Mississippi’s outdoors deserve much better.

I watch commission meetings. As a former newspaper publisher, my radar locks on when commission chairman Bill Cossar says during a commission meeting, “Weren’t you going to second that?” I have seen, and others have confirmed, that there are many instances of the commission referencing pre-determined actions on the record. A lawyer interested in commission proceedings told me, “It would be a cinch to prove it in court.”

By ensuring transparency within the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Commission, we can hold them accountable for their actions and decisions. Transparency allows the public to understand the reasoning behind policies, expenditures, and management practices, fostering a sense of ownership and participation in the general public. Citizens can then know they have a voice. When the preservation and protection of the public trust is seen as a paramount responsibility, those in power must honor and protect it.

Transparent, accountable, and ethical leadership by the commission, combined with citizen engagement, are vital in maintaining this trust. It is our collective duty to cherish and safeguard it. By doing so, we can protect Mississippi’s wildlife legacy, and we, the public, can know it was built on integrity, fairness, good science, and the common good. I am humbled and accept fully the responsibility I have as the host of SuperTalk Outdoors to be a critical watchdog of this state’s conservation efforts, holding those in power accountable and shining a light on potential abuses or mismanagement. I have a deep understanding of this role. And while they may not like it and have taken extraordinary steps in the recent past to silence my voice, I intend to play a crucial role in reporting and discussing the actions of our wildlife commission. I intend to uncover any discrepancies, conflicts of interest, or unethical or illegal practices that may undermine public trust. And I will celebrate their actions when they do good work.

But let’s be clear here, continued violations of Mississippi’s open meetings laws will almost certainly lead to formal complaints, litigation, and further degradation of the public trust. Let’s put the public trust back on the front burner. Our kids and our kid’s kids are counting on us.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of SuperTalk Mississippi Media.

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