Cost of obtaining public records could decrease

JACKSON — A bill has passed the Mississippi Senate seeking to reduce the cost for the general public to get copies of government documents.

Senate Bill 2066 says requests for public records must be handled by the lowest-paid government employee who is qualified to do so.

The proposed change is intended to stop agencies from using attorneys or other high-paid employees to pull and copy records such as budget documents or minutes of city council meetings.

Senators removed parts of the bill that said governments would have to make public records available in electronic format. Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, led the effort to remove that requirement, saying it could force cities and counties to spend money they might not have.

“This is requiring a local government to adopt a computer system that someone else wants them to adopt,” Bryan said.

Sen. Nancy Adams Collins, R-Tupelo, said she spoke with employees of the state Department of Information Technology Services and they told her state and local governments shouldn’t face big expenses if they’re required to provide public records in electronic format.

Collins said the bill is endorsed by the state Ethics Commission, the Mississippi Press Association and the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information.

“This is nothing but transparency in the government,” she said.

The bill moves to the House. Similar bills have been killed in the past amid opposition from government officials who want attorneys to continue reviewing requests for public records.

In 2011, when then-Gov. Haley Barbour was laying the groundwork for a possible 2012 presidential run, The Associated Press was among the news organizations submitting freedom of information requests for records about his time as governor. AP requested information for Barbour’s second term, which began in January 2004. The request covered all of the Republican governor’s official and personal calendars and daily schedules maintained by the governor and his staff, all logs of phone messages and visitors, all written correspondence between the governor and his staff and all executive orders he issued.

Barbour announced April 25, 2011, that he wouldn’t enter the presidential race. Two days later, a Barbour staff attorney responded to AP’s request, saying the information would cost $30,984. Because Barbour didn’t become a candidate, AP didn’t pay the money or ask for the information request to be fulfilled.

Some state and local government agencies charge hourly research fees. For example, The state Department of Health and the state Division of Medicaid said in 2012 that they charge $10 for clerical staff time or $40 for technical or professional assistance.

Many government entities charge fees per page, often ranging from 10 cents to $1. Some, such as the state auditor’s office, will waive the costs upon request.

Sen. Deborah Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, was active in the Sierra Club before she was elected to the Legislature in 1999. She recalled Wednesday that as a private citizen, she often went to the state Department of Environmental Quality to request public records. She said she once paid $600 for a stack of documents about as thick as the Jackson phone book.

“It was very difficult for citizen groups to have access to information,” Dawkins said.

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