Fee provisions hamper Open Meetings Act

Published 1:01 am Sunday, February 19, 2012

OXFORD — Too often, the keepers of public information in Mississippi use the fee provision in the Open Records Act to defy the intent of the act.

For several years, the Legislature has been asked to fix this problem.

This year, with a new crop of state leaders pledged to “transparency,” should be the year more precise wording is sent to Gov. Phil Bryant for his signature.

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Section 25-61-7 of the act says a “public body may establish and collect fees reasonably calculated to reimburse it for, and in no case to exceed, the actual cost of searching, reviewing and/or duplicating and, if applicable, mailing copies of public records.”

This provision is needed. No one should be able to walk into a chancery clerk’s office and ask for free photocopies of, say, thousands of pages of land rolls. Hey, if they’re free, why not get 10 copies? It would be ludicrous to burden taxpayers with such expenses.

The problem arises when records custodians or other public officials use the fee provision as a shield, as a mechanism to keep people from obtaining access to information about what their government is doing.

Want a copy of the mayor’s expense vouchers? Sure, it’s public — but there’s a $200 estimate, payable in advance, for finding the records, reviewing them and making copies. Sadly, some officials in Mississippi still think such obfuscation — directly in violation of the spirit of the Open Records Act — is clever.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to find a “one size fits all” solution, but what is also clear is the existing wording provides far too much wiggle room for officials seeking to avoid accountability.

One would think “in no case to exceed the actual cost” would be clear enough, but county-to-county, city-to-city and agency-to-agency there are widely varying fees. And especially when the information is “sensitive,” fee requests seem to soar.

This is an issue that has been addressed by every state. Florida sets a fee of 15 cents per page and requires a clear schedule of fees in the unusual instances where extra work is required to retrieve information requested.

Mississippi and other states are rapidly shifting, of course, to electronic records available on the Internet at no charge. This is an empowering, healthy trend in a democracy.

As with paper records, it must be made clear that costs imposed to create an obstacle or, worse, to create a new “profit center” for an agency will not be tolerated.

Paper records, however, will be with us for the foreseeable future. Legislators should act now to make sure fee provisions in the Public Records Act are as clear as they need to be to keep the provisions being used to, in effect, block access to records the law deems to be open.

This state has taken many steps toward more openness in recent years. Time for one more.