By Anita Lee/The Sun Herald
Part of a series, Mississippi: The Secret State.
GULFPORT — In Oxford, University of Mississippi student Jackson Ables paid $1 per page for copies of a city budget, plus $7 an hour for a city worker to gather the records.
In Gulfport, military retiree Walter Thomas paid 25 cents a page for copies of city e-mails and $33.79 an hour to have the records gathered and assembled. His total cost: $1,032.69.
Gulfport’s initial estimate for the records was $3,000, but Thomas pared back the request so the charge would be lower.
The Mississippi Public Records Act says public bodies can charge fees “reasonably calculated to reimburse it for, and in no case to exceed, the actual cost” of producing those records. As the two examples illustrate, the cost of copies varies widely.
Legislative efforts to further define reasonable or actual costs have failed in the past. But state Rep. David Norquist, D-Cleveland, has introduced a bill this year to limit research costs. Under the bill, records requested from a government entity must be compiled by the lowest-paid employee competent to assemble them. Also, the bill would prohibit charges for research by non-employees.
“It’s a bill that’s designed to bring a little sunshine in,” Norquist said. “I think that there are people in government who are using document reproduction as a way to hide what’s going on. That’s not what freedom of information is all about.”
The proposed law may not have helped Thomas. An assistant city attorney researched his records request to ensure no e-mails were included that contained confidential information. Personnel matters and attorney-client communications, for example, are confidential.
The attorney who completed the research, Chelsea Brannon, said she was very conscious of the costs, taking the records home so that she could complete the work more quickly, without distractions.
She reviewed hundreds of e-mails in 14 hours, according to the bill Thomas was sent.
The cost also might have been lowered had Thomas been allowed to inspect the e-mails she culled and copy only what he wanted, as he had requested and the law allows. Instead, all the e-mails were copied and mailed to him.
Normally, a city records custodian can handle requests without the legal department’s assistance.
“That cuts down on the cost of review,” Brannon said. “We certainly don’t want to charge someone for something when we don’t have to.”
Ben Stone, a Gulfport attorney who chairs the Mississippi Ethics Commission, said four to five access issues are before the agency for review at any given time. Many, he said, involve the cost of records.
The Ethics Commission is trying to encourage public entities to post records online, or at least an index that lists the records available, as a way to cut production costs. Stone said some entities also need to better organize their records to cut research time.
The Ethics Commission encourages government bodies to limit their charges in the interest of transparency. Generally, Stone said, a government body does not have to charge for days of research time, even if the work took that long.
“Usually, we would not think that’s something that should be done,” Stone said. “There’s a certain amount of responsibility that an agency has to the public. That’s what some of the employees are there for, is to be responsive to the public. They’re paying their salaries any way.
“If somebody has a legitimate reason to request documents, I think the agency has a duty to provide personnel to assist them.”
Sun Herald staff writer Anita Lee is president of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information.