Shameful: Student introduced to ‘open city government’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 31, 2010

Imagine the dismay of Ole Miss student Jackson Ables.

As a class assignment, he was tasked to look at Oxford’s budgets for a couple of years to spot increases or reductions and then try to explain the trends. In Mississippi, as elsewhere, municipal budgets are, by unambiguous law, the most public of public records. A summary of Oxford’s had even been printed in the local newspaper. Yet Ables was told at the city clerk’s office that he needed to fill out a form and it would cost about $30 to provide the copies he sought. When he went back he was told he could have the budgets for $96.

Pretty expensive homework, huh? The city accountant explained that even though a written policy says Oxford will charge 50 cents per copy and $7 per hour for labor, the clerk had chosen to use more expensive copy paper, so the charge would be $1 per page. As for any “labor charge,” providing access to open records is part of the job description for which clerks are salaried. It’s like asking a librarian for help finding a book. State law contemplates there will be no “labor charge” unless a records request requires specific time spent locating and distilling information. Budgets are in file cabinets that require opening a drawer or in computers requiring selecting the “print” option.

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Explaining the situation, Oxford Mayor Pat Patterson said the city has no policy to make people wait, but added that charging so much for records was a way of coping when the city was inundated with requests.

Interviewed separately, the city accountant said Oxford gets about six records requests — a year.

It doesn’t take leaps of logic to discern that Jackson Ables was being jerked around.

While some jurisdictions in this state have admirable records of openness because they understand that having a better-informed public is a good thing, others take the position that public information — even how town money is spent — is personal, proprietary information. Delay, denial and arbitrariness are their tools. They defy the spirit if not the precise terms of state law. They are hostile to the public. They see citizens as a bother.

The series of stories, including Ables’ story, prepared under the auspices of the Mississippi Coalition for Freedom of Information and printed in The Vicksburg Post last week illustrated that while there’s been some progress, Mississippi too often remains a “secret state.”

It sounds high-minded and scholarly, but it’s an absolute truth: An informed public is fundamental to democracy. Ole Miss professors, no doubt, lecture on that principle. The real world can be, as Jackson Ables learned, a different place.