Ethics group extends comment period

JACKSON – The state Ethics Commission on Friday postponed the adoption of model open records rules.
The proposal was on the agenda for the Ethics Commission’s monthly meeting, but Chairman Ben Stone of Gulfport said members postponed action to make sure that all people, groups or governmental entities had time to comment on the proposed model rules.
“We have gotten some significant comments, most very favorable,” Stone said. “We did not want to cut anyone off. I would think we would take it up at our next meeting.”
The next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 6.
State law authorizes the Ethics Commission to issue non-binding opinions on public records disputes. As part of that authority, the commission has decided to develop “model rules” that it hopes local governments and state government agencies will adopt and follow.
Tom Hood, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said the commission has heard from several groups, including the governor’s office, Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, Mississippi Common Cause, Mississippi State University, and the Mississippi Sheriffs’ Association.
Hood said the Attorney General’s Office also is expected to submit comments before next month’s meeting.
“This is a really big undertaking,” Hood said. “I think it is important to take the time to do it right.”

Avoiding court
Legislation passed in 2008 gives the Ethics Commission the authority to issue opinions on open records and open meetings conflicts. One of the goals of the legislation was to give those filing complaints against public entities an outlet other than the more costly court system.
Some of the biggest conflicts around public records have centered on the fees government entities charge to provide the information.
“Making the cost of getting copies of public records prohibitively expensive is one way to prevent access that is all too common,” Lynn Evans, president of the Mississippi Common Cause, wrote to the Ethics Commission.
She cited instances in which one governmental entity charged $60 for an hour of staff time in compiling the records request. The governor’s office, she said, charged more than $14,000 for four days worth of e-mails.
The Ethics Commission is proposing a fee of 15 cents per page for copies and a fee of the compensation “for the lowest paid agency employee qualified to perform the task.”
In general, Ethics Commission officials said their goal is to keep cost minimal.
Public comments by governmental agencies centered on objections to shortening the time allowed to provide the public records, allowing the request to be made orally and requiring agencies to index public records.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal