Ethics panel mulls records guidelines

The eight-member commission delayed acting on the issue in both October and November to give government entities time to offer comment and to provide commission members more time to study the proposed guidelines.
A vote could come at its December meeting on Friday.
Tom Hood, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said members “are having to balance limited government resources with the public’s right to access.”
In other words, Hood said the guidelines should ensure a great deal of public access while acknowledging that many government entities, particularly in the current economy, have tight budgets and might be limited in how fast they can provide public records.
Plus, Hood pointed out, what the Ethics Commission will adopt “are guidelines. Any state agency or local entity can tweak them to fit their situation. … Basically they can tweak them as long as they stay within the law.”
For instance, in preliminary guidelines released by the Ethics Commission to gather input, it was suggested that each agency have a public records officer.
Many responded they did not have the resources to fill such a position.
“It doesn’t require hiring anybody,” Hood said.
“But we thought it made sense to have someone on staff responsible for government records requests.”
The Ethics Commission is taking up the issue because a state law passed in 2008 authorizes the commission to issue non-binding opinions on public records disputes.
As part of that authority, the commission has decided to develop “model rules” it hopes local governments and state government agencies will adopt and follow.
Legislators reasoned that giving the Ethics Commission authority to issue opinions regarding public records might provide an avenue other than the courts to settle such disputes.
“We’re not telling anybody you have to do anything you are not required by law to do now,” Hood said. “We’re just making suggestions how to best follow the law.”
Some of the biggest disputes concerning public records center 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.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal