Mississippi History Museums

Signage promoting the two new Mississippi history museums rests before the Museum of Mississippi History, left, and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, in Jackson, Miss. The facilities are in the process of preparing exhibits for placement in the two buildings. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON • The Legislature is considering an overhaul of how the nine-member board of trustees for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History is set up, transforming it into a politician-appointed panel rather than a body that selects its own members.

For more than a century, that board and the agency, one of the oldest in the nation, has quietly sought to preserve Mississippi’s past — from prehistoric artifacts, to Civil War documents, to Civil Rights-era exhibits.

The proposal to tinker with the agency's leadership has garnered concerns from a prominent Northeast Mississippi lawmaker and others who question why such a change is necessary, and whether it could politicize an agency that should be insulated from such influence.

“This completely revamps the board of archives and history,” Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, warned his Senate colleagues last week. “I don’t know of any public discussion of this or anything — it’s just all of a sudden, one afternoon, we’re doing this.”

Under Senate Bill 2727 — which cleared the Senate on a party-line vote and now goes to the House — the governor and lieutenant governor would alternate appointing new MDAH trustees for six-year terms. The appointments would then be confirmed or rejected by the Senate.

The way it's set up now, the board is self-perpetuating. That means the board itself approves new members when someone resigns or when a term ends. The selection is then forwarded to the Senate for confirmation.

The author of the legislation, Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Long Beach, said the board is “one of the only” in the state that picks its own members, which struck him as odd.

“This is simply about having some accountability, where an elected official makes an appointment, and can be held responsible for that appointment and the goings-on of the board,” Thompson said last week. “It’s a simple act of accountability that is currently not there.”

Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, also supported the bill as chairman of the Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee. He told his Senate colleagues Monday there was no specific problem that led to the legislation, but a political appointee system would lead to more accountability for taxpayers.

“After a while you will see a board start thinking like itself,” Polk said. “So this bill that we are going to pass today will show that you and your constituents have more control over the hundreds of millions of dollars over these years that will have been spent on archives and history."

Polk told his Senate colleagues that the board’s “diversity of thought, as far as archives and especially history, is maybe a little myopic, and we need some new thought in there.” Polk did not respond to a message from the Daily Journal on Tuesday seeking more details.

Other lawmakers argued the board has done its job admirably and already has sufficient accountability.

“It’s a very diverse board, it’s a board that’s geographically diverse, (and it) has fine, upstanding people who are confirmed or not confirmed by the Senate,” said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson. “It seems to me that there is oversight there.”

Four board members are presently awaiting Senate confirmation: Nancy Carpenter, Spence Flatgard, Edmond E. Hughes Jr. and Helen Moss Smith. The same four were also up for confirmation last year, but the Senate declined to approve or reject them.

Bryan told the Daily Journal he has several concerns about the bill, including placing “a bunch of political appointees in charge of the Civil Rights Museum.”

Beyond overseeing the Two Mississippi Museums in Jackson and historic sites and buildings around the state, MDAH manages a trove of historic documents, photographs and historical artifacts, and conducts educational programs and outreach.

The current system of the board naming its own members — and sidestepping political influence — has worked out well since the agency was formed, Bryan said.

“Who do you think Ross Barnett would have appointed to the Department of Archives and History?” he asked, referring to the segregationist former governor who served during the Civil Rights movement.

Bryan also criticized the way the legislation quietly advanced through the Senate. Many lawmakers did not know what the bill was about — and the public did not have a chance to review it — until “out of nowhere” an amendment was proposed on the Senate floor, Bryan said. The initial legislation that passed out of a senate committee did not include language changing the board.

“This is no way to deal with something that completely revamps an agency,” he said, adding he has been “frantically” trying to alert people about the bill.

At least one board member, Betsey Hamilton of New Albany, said she had not heard about the proposed change until Tuesday morning. Several other board members, including Board President Reuben Anderson, did not respond to Daily Journal messages seeking comment. MDAH Director Katie Blount declined comment.

MDAH was created as a state agency in 1902, growing out of the Mississippi Historical Society during an effort to ensure preservation of Civil War documents and artifacts. The Historical Society’s board of directors became the first nine-member board of trustees overseeing the agency.

Only Alabama, in 1901, created an archives and history state agency before Mississippi. Like Mississippi, the Alabama Department of Archives and History continues to be governed by a self-appointed board whose members are confirmed by the state Senate.

Luke Ramseth is a Jackson-based reporter covering the 2021 session of the Mississippi Legislature for the Daily Journal. Email him at lramseth@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @lramseth.

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