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City drags feet on records request

Public records are just that — public. But getting them isn’t always as easy as it should be.

A recent case in point: The newspaper requested a week’s worth of emails from city and county officials. Lincoln County Administrator David Fields filled the request in a timely manner, but only turned over 17 total emails for himself and Sheriff Steve Rushing.

That seems like an awfully low number of emails for anyone who uses it for business. There was nothing newsworthy in those emails, and we didn’t expect there to be. We requested the public records just to see how the process works — or if the process works.

For Brookhaven, it doesn’t look like the process works. We requested the emails, which are public record, on March 16. City attorney Joe Fernald verbally requested an additional 10 days to produce the records on Thursday. State law requires a written request.

We’ve yet to receive the emails or the written request for an extension, and we haven’t agreed to any extension.

This is not how the state’s Open Records Act was designed to work. Any member of the public should be able to request any public record and get a timely response from any government agency.

State law says “the public body must provide a written explanation to the person making the request stating that the record requested will be produced and specifying with particularity why the records cannot be produced within the seven-day period. Unless there is mutual agreement of the parties, in no event shall the date for the public body’s production of the requested records be any later than fourteen (14) working days from the receipt by the public body of the original request.”

The newspaper requested the emails of Mayor Joe Cox, City Clerk Mike Jinks, Police Chief Bobby Bell and any of the aldermen that have an official email address.

“We have never been asked to produce email records,” Fernald said. “Due to the mayor being out-of-pocket for part of the seven days and me being sick, we are requesting extra time.”

That seems reasonable, but the city should follow the letter of the law and request the extra time in writing. Fernald’s request for an extra 10 days would put the city’s timeline beyond what state law allows. Per state law, 14 days is the max for meeting the request, unless both parties agree to it.

If the newspaper has this much trouble getting the public documents, imagine how a similar request would go for your average citizen.

We are disappointed in the city’s handling of this request, not just because it is dragging its feet, but because it’s not following state law. There is no real recourse for us or the public if records are not provided, save for filing an ethics complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission. Hopefully that won’t be necessary.