Tuesday, March 15, 2016
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Republican leaders in the Mississippi House and Senate have denied a request for email correspondence and information about their schedules, saying the state Public Records Act does not apply to legislators.
Top Democrats in each chamber ignored identical records requests that The Associated Press submitted as part of a nationwide effort to test government openness to show who's influencing policymakers.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, however, released schedule information and email for the requested week of Feb. 1-7. Some information was redacted, including cellphone numbers and recommendations about filling judicial vacancies. The governor's office also waived the $130 cost of fulfilling the records request.
The schedule showed Bryant spoke at the funeral of longtime Jackson TV journalist Bert Case; met with Mississippi Development Authority employees about industrial projects considered by lawmakers that week; met with David Chandler, director of the state's foster care system; attended dinner with his longtime political consultant Josh Gregory and Medicaid director David Dzielak; spoke to community college students; and posed for photos with Cub Scouts, legislative pages, Leadership Jones County participants and members of the Mississippi State Medical Association. It also showed he went hunting Feb. 5 and 6 in Ouachita County, Arkansas.
Bryant's state email included news briefings, a Byram Volunteer Fire Department request for a $123,139 grant, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency memos about tornadoes, letters from people wanting to change the state's vaccination law and a survey from the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority about "opportunities to enhance the air travel services."
Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, wrote his Feb. 18 response to the AP that House attorneys concluded his schedule information and correspondence through his state email account "are my personal property as an elected official of the Legislature, not subject to the Public Records Act of 1983."
"To protect the other 121 House members whom I serve with from an expectation that their emails should be made public upon request, to protect each constituent and every citizen of the State of Mississippi who should be able to expect a private communication with his or her legislator about policy, and to protect the necessary confidentiality of communications with employees or any other individuals regarding legislative policy, I cannot disclose the records you have requested," Gunn wrote.
Senate President Pro Tempore Terry Burton, R-Newton, sent a letter to the AP to deny the request for Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves' schedule and email. Burton noted that state law says the Mississippi Senate may regulate public access to its records. He wrote that under that law, the Senate Rules Committee many years ago adopted a policy restricting public access to records of the lieutenant governor, an office that is both executive and legislative.
"The only records subject to release under this policy are expense reimbursement records, and no other records are subject to release," Burton wrote.
The Democratic leaders of the two chambers — Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Louis and Sen. John Horhn of Jackson — did not respond to AP's records request. State law sets a seven-day response time.
In August, a group pushing a school-funding proposal requested all email from Reeves and Gunn's state accounts that mentioned Initiative 42. Reeves, Gunn and other Republican leaders campaigned against the initiative, saying it would give legislators' budget-writing powers to a judge. Reeves and Gunn both said their email was not subject to public disclosure.
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