Stronger penalties needed for public records violations

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, June 6, 2006

The brouhaha surrounding Jackson Mayor Frank Melton’s recentresponses to public records requests has made for some interestingheadlines, but there are some serious and troubling issues with theleader’s apparent callous disregard for the law.

While Melton – whose antics have endeared him to some parts ofthe electorate and made him reviled by others – can play word gamesover whether public records requests were shredded or torn up withhis bare hands, the fact remains a lawsuit was needed to get themayor’s attention on the importance of public records. Furthermore,Melton apparently was selective about who received the informationhe did choose to release.

Destroying records requests and the selective release ofdocuments are both unacceptable.

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Public records are just that – publicrecords.

They do not belong to Melton – or any other official – to dowith as they see fit. They belong to the public, which has a vestedinterest in knowing about the information contained in thedocuments.

And it should not matter to government officials who requeststhe information or what they plan to do with it. What should matteris making sure the requested public records are made available in atimely manner with as little inconvenience as possible.

More importantly, what should matter to a government official isbeing found in violation of the public records law and being madeto pay a hefty fine. That’s where the Mississippi Legislature cancome in.

Currently, public records law violators face only a $100 fine.Quite frankly, that is chump change to someone like Melton and isno deterrent to his cavalier attitude about public recordsrequests.

When they return in January, state lawmakers should take a closelook at strengthening public records laws and raising the fine forviolations. Raising the fine would send a strong message acrossJackson and the rest of the state about the importance of publicrecords and unfettered access to them.