Public records must be accessible

Published 6:59 pm Thursday, March 22, 2018

Public records are just that — public.

That means you have a right to inspect or copy the various documents, emails and papers that government bodies produce while going about their work.

It is why arrest reports appear in this newspaper each day. Those records are public.

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But governments have ways of keeping public records private. Charging an unreasonable fee to produce those records effectively seals them off from the very folks who have a legal right to see them.

A recent case in point: The newspaper requested the emails of three Lincoln County School District employees (not their private emails, but those sent or received on their school district accounts). State law says those are public records.

We were shocked when the quote for the records request came in at $465. And that wasn’t for hard copies of the emails, just an electronic file of them. Of that total, $430 was for school board attorney Jim Keith’s time (one hour) to review the emails before releasing them to us.

That presented a couple of problems in our eyes. Why was Keith required to review all emails? And if an attorney is required, surely his firm could do that work more cheaply than $430 per hour.

“That’s pretty interesting. I don’t think the Mississippi Ethics Commission would like that,” said Leonard Van Slyke, a media and First Amendment law attorney with Brunini Law. “They cannot charge any more than what it would take the lowest-level person on their staff to do that.”

State law allows agencies to charge a reasonable fee “at the pay scale of the lowest level employee or contractor competent to respond.”

Surely, Keith is not the lowest level contractor that is competent to respond to a request like this. If he is, the school board should look at what Keith charges and see if it’s comparable to what a local attorney might charge to provide legal counsel to the board.

Pricing the public out of public documents is a violation of the spirit of the state’s open records law. The public deserves better.