Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Mississippi, we have a problem. Governmental bodies and agencies from right here in Jackson (city, JPS and JPD) all the way up through state (secretary of state's office) have a really bad habit of trying to hide public information from you the taxpayer, or at least delaying it. Although some elected officials are better than others and despite the fact that we supposedly have laws on the books to force "sunshine" in government, the idea of an accountable open-records culture in our state is a joke.
We live in a climate where public servants routinely thumb their noses not only at the law, but at the spirit of the law. And there is very little done to them for dragging their feet on releasing information, charging way too much for copies, closing meetings to the public with a vague excuse or even ignoring public-records requests outright.
The Jackson Free Press has long fought public-records battles with government bodies. Sometimes the person who supposedly is there to respond to our requests belittles us for wanting the information. Often, they suddenly decide to charge high fees for copying (including the time of the public servant charged with doing it) and sometimes even expensive hourly legal fees (looking at you, JPS). The result is that the person or outlet requesting the info can't afford the fees.
Of course, these are the same folks who will spend time faxing, PDFing and copying information they want us to see free of charge, and then give us piles of paper and sometimes even fancy press kits at their press events. Our response: If you can afford a PR person or resources for press releases, you can afford to respond to public-records requests and give us the information we ask for, and quickly.
The disgusting response time for requests is another huge problem. The spirit of sunshine laws is that a taxpayer should get public information on demand. Does this mean the public servant drops everything and gets it that second? No, but it should be forthcoming within a day.
Sunshine laws build in maximum times (ours is now seven days) that are supposed to be used only when information is stored in a warehouse or is hard to retrieve. But public servants routinely ignore these laws. This month, for instance, we requested an incident report from JPD that took 10 days; when you see that one paragraph took that long, you really wonder what people are being paid to do.
This kind of stonewalling is counter-productive; it only makes us wonder what people are hiding. State lawmakers should take seriously the bills before it to put teeth into public-records law. Any person denying or delaying information to a taxpayer should be held personally accountable, as they are in some other states. The exorbitant fees must stop, and information must be provided on demand or an immediate reason offered for any delay of more than a day.
Bottom line: Anyone who doesn't like this kind of public rigor should not be on the public payroll. They work for the taxpayers.