Bills would improve transparency in Miss.
By Will Bardwell, March 16, 2014
If you’re a champion of open government, then for the past several years you’ve lived in an exciting but bewildering time.
Thanks to smartphones and high-speed Internet access, the tools of instant communication are more accessible today than ever before. And public interest in the activities of government has never been higher.
On your telephone, you can watch a live video from an event happening halfway around the world. On a tablet device no larger than a comic book, you can download and watch a full-length film.
It ought to be easier than ever for Mississippians to get an up-close view of their government at work.
Unfortunately, too many of Mississippi’s institutions of government still behave as though it were the Dark Ages.
Since 1983, the Public Records Act has recognized that the products of government are public property.
Under the law, if you want to review a court file or read the minutes from a city council meeting, then that is your right.
But for years, if you wanted a reliable chance of taking advantage of that right, then all the smartphones and tablets in the world couldn’t help you. What you really needed were deep pockets and a room full of lawyers.
That’s not the way it ought to be. That’s no way for a democratic government to behave. And that’s not the Mississippi that the framers of the Public Records Act envisioned more than 30 years ago.
Fortunately, the Mississippi Legislature still has a chance to level the playing field a little bit.
Two important bills have been making their ways through the Legislature for the past couple of months, and both would bring needed changes to the way public-records requests are handled in our state
HB928: Reducing public records cost
For the past several years, one way government agencies have deflected public-records requests is to require the requester to pay enormous fees associated with the preparation of the documents being requested.
For example, if you walked into your local chancery clerk’s office and asked to review a case file, they might smile and offer to give you all the time you need — on the condition that you pay a staff attorney’s hourly rate for as long as it takes to prepare the documents for you.
There’s nothing wrong with a public body requiring a small fee to reimburse it for its costs.
But in recent years, some government agencies have conditioned a public-records request on prepayment of hundreds of dollars — and sometimes more. That is outrageous, and any state that believes in open government ought to find it completely unacceptable.
That’s where House Bill 928 comes in.
If House Bill 928 becomes law, then a public body could only require reimbursement of costs incurred by the lowest-level employee competent to respond to a public-records request.
It’s an important step in reducing the costs associated with a crucial legal right.
The Legislature has passed House Bill 928. But it still must be signed by Gov. Phil Bryant to become law.
SB2507: Public Records Act enforcement
Senate Bill 2507 is just as important.
When the Public Records Act became law in 1983, it provided only one remedy for someone whose public-records request was illegally denied: Go to court and file a lawsuit.
Even in 1983, filing a lawsuit was no small undertaking. Today, litigation against a public body is even more cumbersome.
But if it becomes law, Senate Bill 2507 will make that challenge a bit less onerous by giving the Mississippi Ethics Commission the power to adjudicate disputes over public-records requests.
The Ethics Commission is a far less demanding arena than the courts. By allowing public-records disputes to be resolved there, Senate Bill 2507 would make it far easier for private citizens to enforce their rights under the Public Records Act.
Call your legislators. Heck, call everybody’s legislators. Poke them on Facebook. Write them on Twitter. Reach out however you can and let them know that open government is more important today than it ever has been.
House Bill 928 and Senate Bill 2507 would do wonders for increasing citizens’ access to the work of their government. That has been the entire purpose of the Public Records Act for more than 30 years now.
And that goal is simply too important to let these opportunities to improve government accountability and transparency slip through Mississippi’s fingers.
Will Bardwell is president of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information and an attorney with McCraney Montagnet Quin & Noble PLLC
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