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Justin Sellers/The Clarion-Ledger
During Mississippi’s mental health task force’s third meeting since Attorney General Jim Hood created it last summer, a security guard stood by the elevators at the Walter Sillers State Office Building in downtown Jackson, asking folks attempting to enter if they were “on the task force.”
That’s because members of the public and press have been barred from attending the gatherings, which take place on the 13th floor — in the press room. The meetings, in which attendees are split into several subcommittees, are designed to address issues within the state’s multi-pronged mental health system.
They met Wednesday for nearly four hours.
MS Pulse: Mississippi has a transparency problem and it could be hurting health
Hood’s office is defending the state in a lawsuit U.S. Department of Justice filed against Mississippi in 2016 for its delivery of mental health services. The state is accused of having too great a reliance on institutional versus community-based care.
Building officials said the public cannot visit the public, taxpayer-funded offices in the Sillers building — including the governor’s office and Medicaid — unless they have an appointment.
The task force is made up of representatives from more than 30 agencies, many that already serve folks with mental illnesses. The group includes health care professionals, judges, law enforcement officers, academics and advocates, as well as lawmakers Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, Sen. Hob Bryan, R-Amory, and Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens.
The attorney general’s office claims the group is not subject to the Open Meetings Act because it is not drafting legislation or policy, only recommendations.
A press release on the task force says it “will also review current legislation as well as needs for additional legislation.”
A similar task force created by Gov. Phil Bryant to study the state’s opioid crisis, an issue that overlaps greatly with mental health, also wrote recommendations. It held meetings open to the public.
The membership of the mental health task force, the only folks authorized to attend meetings, is in flux, said Hood’s spokesperson Margaret Morgan. Morgan said Hood extended an invitation to participate to many groups, which either accepted, declined, or even invited others in the field to join.
Hood, a likely candidate for governor in 2019, asked task force members to decide whether other members of the public or press should be allowed to attend. A majority of respondents said they preferred the meetings be closed, making it impossible for outside review to determine the group’s productivity.
Morgan has provided the Clarion Ledger the contact information for at least three members of the task force who said they’d be willing to talk to reporters.
One of those members, Biloxi Police Chief Chris De Back, said his involvement on the task force focuses mainly with coordinating efforts between mental health professionals and law enforcement to identify folks in crisis and provide “the necessary services they need before it ends up in a law enforcement capacity.”
In general, De Back said the task force is good for bringing folks of all disciplines together from across the state to learn how each person plays a role — something advocates have pleaded for over the years.
“There are all kinds of services out there. The problem is the services aren’t working together or they don’t know about each other,” De Back said. “By becoming a team, bringing everything together, we can be more efficient and, in the long run, more effective.”
Sen. Bryan said Wednesday he doesn’t understand why the meetings are closed and was willing to discuss what his subcommittee addressed: improvements to the state’s commitment process.
Bryan said the state has made progress with commitments, a process “based on a law that existed a hundred years ago, passed when there wasn’t the knowledge there is now.” His subcommittee is discussing ways to continue moving away from commitments being the default way to get services for someone with a mental illness.
A Muslim terrorist suspect has failed to convince a High Court judge to relax restrictions on him so he can take his children to McDonald’s.
The man, who was made subject of ‘terrorism prevention and investigation measures’ last year, claims the restrictions are also preventing him from seeing his family who live miles away.
He said when his wife and two children visited him they could not go to shops or cafes with internet access, including McDonald’s.
He added one of his children ‘loved Happy Meals’.
But Mrs Justice Elisabeth Laing was not sympathetic to the man’s complaints during a hearing at a High Court in London.
She decided ministers were right to conclude the man had ‘engaged in terrorism-related activity’.
She said it was necessary to deny him unfettered internet access and said monitoring computer use in a McDonald’s would be difficult.
The man, who has links to east London, was born abroad but moved to the UK as a child and has brothers and sisters living in the country.
He was referred to as ‘LF’ at the hearing because he could not be identified for legal reasons.
The judge oversaw part of the hearing in secret.