Sunshine Week sheds some light

Published 11:07 pm Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Daily Leader asked the question: Should the public have access to salary and pay information on government employees?

Whether the answer you give is yes or no, the fact is, you as a tax-paying citizen have the right to know those figures. The public has the right to know how tax dollars are spent — and government employees are paid with your tax dollars.

This week is Sunshine Week, a national effort to promote accountability and transparency in government, and this newspaper requested salary information for Brookhaven, Lincoln County and Wesson government employees. The goal was to see just how difficult it would be to obtain those records. 

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Letters were sent Feb. 28 to Brookhaven City Clerk Mike Jinks, Wesson Municipal Clerk Linda Dykes and Lincoln County Administrator David Fields requesting the right to inspect and copy a list of employees to include name, annual salary, title, job description and employee gender. This information is public record and is available by law under the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983.

The Daily Leader requested that any costs or fees that might be charged be waived, but agreed to pay for the actual cost of searching and duplicating the public records, up to an amount not to exceed $25.

The newspaper asked that the records be made available within seven working days.

So how’d your government agencies do?

Requests were made Feb. 28. Seven business days later would be March 9.

Within a few days, the Brookhaven City Clerk’s office had responded by telephone. The documents were ready and there would be about a $4 charge for the copies.

On March 6, Lincoln County Chancery Clerk Tillmon Bishop, the secretary to the Board of Supervisors, said that some employees were concerned about their salaries being made public.

On March 8, Fields emailed a copy of the salaries in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet as requested. There was no charge.

Wesson, however, has not produced the public documents, 12 business days after the newspaper sent a written request.

Dykes responded by email on March 9 to give an update.

“Per our attorney, this document does not exist. We will get you a list of employees and salary but all personal information is exempt from disclosure,” she said.

She also said there will be a $10 hourly fee charged plus the cost of copies.

On Tuesday, the newspaper sent an email to check the status of the request. Dykes replied Wednesday that the attorney had been out and would “try to work on it” Thursday.

The newspaper is still waiting.

Americans are urged to recognize the importance of open government to a robust democracy. Access to meetings, minutes and records of our elected and appointed representatives is key to our constitutional right make a complaint to, or seek the assistance of, one’s government, without fear of punishment or reprisals.

It is not strictly for the benefit of the news media.

Access to government information helps citizen’s groups hold public officials accountable through firsthand observation of their actions. The Freedom of Information Act gives citizens the right to obtain information from the federal government —information that your tax dollars paid to collect.