ANALYSIS: Records requests can become tug-of-war

By Tim Kalich/Greenwood Commonwealth

A news analysis. Part of a series, Mississippi: The Secret State.

GREENWOOD — Last year, The Greenwood Commonwealth received a tip that the weeklong inaugural celebration for the new president at Mississippi Valley State University had not generated enough private contributions to pay for itself.

We didn’t know if the tip was true, but it bore checking out. President Donna Oliver had announced early on that no public funds would be used to put on the festivities. If that was incorrect, the taxpayers had a right to know.

Our news staff had already run into some problems with getting records from the university. At this same time, MVSU had been dragging its feet on an unrelated story over the accreditation of one of its programs. So, when the reporter filed a written request for documents about the accreditation, he also included a request for an itemized accounting of expenses and contributions for the inauguration.

From that point on, it became a tug-of-war between the university and us.

MVSU waited the full 14 working days allowed by Public Records Act before responding to both our first request for the inauguration’s financial records and a follow-up. We haggled for several days alone over how much the university could charge us to pull the records and make copies of them. We eventually said that our reporter would inspect the original records himself, so as to reduce the university’s estimated copying costs. On one occasion, the reporter was notified by e-mail at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday that he could conduct the inspection from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. that same day or wait until the next week.

All of this had us thinking that there must be some information the university administration doesn’t want to see get out. When we finally received the last of the documentation — more than two months after we filed our initial request — what did it show? Our tipster had the facts wrong.

The university did not use any public funds to cover the $94,000 cost of the inauguration. In truth, it ended up with a $31,000 surplus to use for student scholarships.

Normally, I would have expected the university to ask us to do such a positive story, rather than hindering it. The experience left me scratching my head. Both the university staff and ours wasted a lot of time over something that, on the surface, had no reason to become adversarial.

We thought they were just being arbitrarily difficult. A. Zachary Faison Jr., special assistant to the president, said that wasn’t the case. Rather, according to Faison, it was our paper’s use of a stick rather than a carrot that slowed the process down.

Normally, we make verbal requests for records before we flex the muscle of the Public Records Act. On this occasion, we bypassed the nicety by delivering at the start of our research a formal written request for records, with its legally intimidating language.

“Typically, that’s not something that most people here at the university are used to getting,” Faison said. “It kind of puts them on edge.”

He also said that our impatience in getting the documentation was unjustified.

“There was an assumption that we just had it sitting there. We didn’t,” Faison said.

Faison and I may never see eye to eye on the Public Records Act. He said, for instance, that for some government bodies, 14 working days may not be enough time to pull requested records. I think it’s ridiculously long, given that more than half the states allow no more than five days.

I will concede him this point, though.

One of our newspaper’s priorities — to get the news fast — is not necessarily going to be our subject’s priorities. We probably will get quicker cooperation if we don’t start off with an adversarial tone.

Sometimes you have to act the bully to force a recalcitrant public official to comply. But it’s usually more productive to start off as friends.

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Tim Kalich is the editor and publisher of the Greenwood Commonwealth.