Getting Mississippi public records comes at a cost

Published 11:37 pm Monday, March 16, 2009

Biloxi resident Keith Rogers thought he would be able to review and copy exhibits the School Board used to decide that an 52-year-old elementary school in his neighborhood will be turned into an alternative school next year.

“I thought I would get them because they are public records,” Rogers said. “The secretary at first was very defensive about releasing them at all.”

She eventually informed Rogers he could have the records for $3 a page. The school system’s standard charge includes the cost of copies, research and time, even though in this case the records already had been assembled and were available on the Internet to board members who had passwords.

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“She said it would be $84 to get the copies I wanted,” Rogers said. “I said I would have to let her know about that. We still don’t have them. I’ve attempted other ways to get the records.”

The Mississippi Public Records Act says only that public bodies can charge no more than the “actual cost” to search, review or duplicate records.

Two state legislators tried this session to clarify what public bodies can charge for records, but both bills died in the Senate.

“We have public records law to allow people to have access to public records,” said Rep. David Norquist, D-Cleveland, whose bill passed the House. “It’s unfortunate that there are some agencies that are attempting to use the cost of copying as a way to prohibit production of those documents.

“My bill was aimed at trying to curb those activities. I don’t know what’s more concerning — the fact that such actions are happening, or the fact that a bill like mine could get no traction to curb those actions.”

In the case of the school records, Superintendent Paul Tisdale said after the Sun Herald contacted him that the long-standing policy of charging $3 a page will be reviewed. He learned the city of Biloxi charges 50 cents a page for copies when no research is involved and makes many of its records available on the Internet.

The Biloxi School District charge is modest compared to the cost Gov. Haley Barbour wanted to charge The Clarion-Ledger last year for four days of gubernatorial e-mails as part of a nationwide audit. Barbour’s office said about 8,000 e-mails would be provided to the Jackson daily newspaper for more than $14,000, including $7,500 to hire private attorneys to review the e-mails for exempted material and $5,400 to bring in an out-of-town computer consultant.

The Clarion-Ledger filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission and is still waiting for the commission’s nonbinding opinion. Executive Director Tom Hood said the issue has been pending so long because six other records requests also were involved and the commission is trying to take care with opinions that may guide public bodies.

“We’re working on developing some guidelines for public bodies to go by,” Hood said. “I think that will be helpful. The best thing a requester can do is try to have open lines of communication with the public body they’re dealing with. If both sides will work with each other in good faith, most of these disputes can be resolved easily.”

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said other senators raised questions about clarifying the cost of records before his bill died on the Senate floor. Norquist’s House bill never made it out of the Senate Judiciary B Committee, Blount said, because the Senate bill had already failed. Blount said some senators thought it would be better to try again next year.

Norquist concluded: “There has been a steady cry for transparency throughout the state and I just think this is a very low impact, easy way to start. If we’re really serious about transparency, where’s the harm in only charging your actual cost for the production of these documents?”