Public records are available for the public’s interest
Sometimes when people ask me what I’m doing, I respond with “what I usually do, sticking my nose in other people’s business.”
That’s not far from the truth. But I’m not peeking in windows (which can get me arrested), peering around the corners of buildings or listening through doors; I’m reading.
Part of my job sometimes involves sitting down and reading public records; the records of what our local governments handle the business of running the city and the county and how our taxes are being spent.
Whether it’s my weekly trip to the Chancery Clerk’s office to get land records or going to the city clerk’s office to look at minutes of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, I’m looking into the public’s business — the things that affect you and me and our families.
Looking at, and sometimes printing public records is part of the responsibility of any newspaper in its effort to inform the public about their community and fill that responsibility as the public’s watchdog. As one paper I worked at said at the top of its public records section put it, “Because the people must know.”
In some cases, local governments publish public records in the form of legal advertisements in the newspaper. Those records and other public notices are required to be made public and published in the newspaper per state law.
Although they seem boring — just endless sheets of paper with lines of typed words and numbers — public records can provide a wealth of information about how contracts for paving or construction, or in the case of the city’s Fisher Ferry property which is now the site of Sports Force Parks on the Mississippi, how much money previous administrations spent — or rather wasted — on the project before finally getting on track.
I can remember stories I did when I worked on the Coast that raised questions about county projects that were all based on information gleaned from public records. At the same time, looking through public records also helped disprove rumors and claims of wrongdoing by officials.
The one good thing about public records is they are available to anyone for the asking. All anyone has to do is fill out a request form for what they want to see. There may be a fee charged for copying the record, which is fine and allowed by state law. There are times too when requests for public records take a few days to be fulfilled.
And, especially when it involves personnel and other areas, some records are withheld from public view. But, those limits are few and far between.
These records belong to all of us, and we have a right to look at them to make sure our interests are being best represented and tax money is being properly spent. If you have a question about how our government is run, don’t rely on social media. Ask for the pertinent records and look for yourself, or let us know what questions you have, and we can answer your question or investigate.
These are the people’s records; they belong to all of us and we have the right to look at them.
John Surratt is a staff writer for The Vicksburg Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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