UM student: Public records challenging to obtain

By Jackson Ables/The Associated Press

Part of a series, Mississippi: The Secret State.

OXFORD — The class assignment I received as a journalism student at the University of Mississippi seemed straightforward enough.

I was to compare Oxford’s two most recent city budgets, find any discrepancies and attempt to account for the differences.

I entered Oxford City Hall expecting to request the records, wait for copies and head back to campus to start my investigation.

I first spoke with Deputy City Clerk Alisa Liggins, who had me complete a Public Records Request form. I requested copies of the 2009 and 2010 city budgets.

Liggins estimated a $30 fee to fill the request. I didn’t realize the cost would be so high. She also informed me that the Oxford Eagle had recently run a condensed version of the proposed 2010 budget. When I found the edition containing the budget, I returned to City Hall to assure her I needed the clerk’s copy, as the version in the Eagle did not contain the detail I needed.

A week later, I received a call from City Hall notifying me the request had been filled. I was shocked to find the cost was now $96 — more than three times the initial estimate.

I told City Accountant Ashley Atkinson that I simply could not afford to pay, despite the fact that the Public Records Request I signed stated that all fees must be paid once a request is complete. I asked if I could pay for and receive only the most recent year’s budget. She agreed and allowed me to complete another request form, this time for only the most recent budget. Atkinson threw away my first request for both budgets after my initial visit to City Hall because Liggins had directed me to the Eagle.

I returned at the end of the 14-day period with $48, the cost of one budget. Atkinson again asked for $96, saying I had requested both years’ budgets and seeming to forget she had allowed me to complete a new request for only the 2010 budget.

Atkinson said the $48 included $7 per hour for the labor involved in printing the budget and $1 for each of the 41 pages.

In 2002, the Oxford Board of Aldermen adopted the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983, which states a government body can charge fees for public records that do not exceed the “actual cost” of searching, reviewing and copying records. The aldermen voted to set a $7-per-hour charge for labor and a 50-cent charge for each page copied (25 cents for copies made by the petitioner). The 50-cent charge is double that of Tupelo, Batesville, Clinton and Vicksburg.

Atkinson said she charged $1 a page because of the type of paper she used. I was never given an option on the quality of paper used.

Mayor Pat Patterson, who became Oxford mayor this past July, was a member of the Board of Aldermen when the Public Records Act was adopted. In a recent interview, he defended the city’s charges for public records.

“I’m sure we looked at other cities and used them as a benchmark,” Patterson said. “If we aren’t busy, we should get up and make the copies. We have absolutely no policy to make people wait.”

Patterson also said charging more for records is one way to slow down the process when the city is inundated with requests. Atkinson said the city receives “about six” requests per year.

Unfortunately, I could not complete my original assignment for class without both budgets. My professor and I decided instead to focus my assignment on the high cost of the documents and the difficulty obtaining them.

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Jackson Ables of Clinton is a senior at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media.