Ethics Commission adopts guidelines for open records

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Governmental agencies wanting direction on how to deal with open records requests can now go to the state Ethics Commission Web site for guidance.
The Ethics Commission has finally adopted a set of model rules designed to provide guidance to any agency from the state to local level on how to deal with requests for public records.
“The rules provide more guidelines than the law does,” said Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Hood. “We learned when we started looking into open records law that there are questions that are not answered by the law.”
Two years ago the Legislature gave the Ethics Commission the authority to hear disputes involving the state’s open meetings and open records laws as an option to what are often costly court hearings.
The commission adopted guidelines for open meetings earlier.
The Ethics Commission has been trying for months to finally adopt the public records model rules, and it completed its work earlier this month.
Hood said the rules provide concrete suggestions to avoid disputes between the agency and the requester of the public records. For instance, the agency should not charge more for the records than the actual cost of producing the records, or 15 cents per copied page.
And “the actual cost of searching for and reviewing and, if necessary, redacting exempt information from public records shall be based upon the hourly rate of compensation for the lowest paid agency employee qualified to perform the task, which shall be multiplied by the actual time to complete the task.”
Hood said he hopes governmental agencies and boards conform the rules to their specific needs.
He said once they adopt them they “are bound by them.”
The model rules also suggest agencies provide the requested information within five business days or provide reasons why they cannot.
The agencies should appoint an employee to be in charge of handling open records requests. The governmental entity also should publish the guidelines it adopts.
The Ethics Commission took recommendations from state agencies and from open government advocacy groups, such as Common Cause, in developing the rules.
Barbara Powell, the lobbyist for Common Cause of Mississippi, said she has not had time to study the model rules in depth, but said, “It seems like they really help us move a step ahead toward open government. They create ground rules so that there are not excuses.”