The Dispatch has submitted a public records complaint to the Mississippi Ethics Commission against the city of Columbus and Office of the City Registrar alleging City Registrar Brenda Williams told a Dispatch reporter not to take pictures of public documents.
The newspaper mailed the complaint to the commission’s Jackson office Thursday, the day after Dispatch News Editor Isabelle Altman visited the registrar’s office to examine campaign finance reports prior to Tuesday’s election. Williams gave the reports to Altman but told her, unprompted, that she could not take pictures of them.
Mississippi statute § 23-15-805, which covers campaign finance reports, states municipal clerks “shall make all reports received under this subsection available for public inspection and copying.”
This is not the first time city officials have told Dispatch reporters they could not take pictures of public documents already available for inspection. On April 9, 2019, Dispatch Managing Editor Zack Plair met with Trotter Convention Center Director Rogena Bonner for a scheduled interview to look over the Trotter’s booking receipts and rental contracts. During the interview, Bonner told Plair he could not photograph the documents he was inspecting.
In neither case did the Dispatch reporters ask for additional public resources to be used, such as physical copies with city equipment or paper or the employees’ time.
“While the most recent incident forms the crux of the complaint, it and the 2019 incident establish a pattern of city policy that effectively denies adequate access to public documents for no clear reason under the law,” The Dispatch’s complaint to the ethics commission says.
“There’s no question about the public’s right to make a photocopy of a public document. What’s the difference between that and taking a photograph of the same document?” Dispatch Publisher Peter Imes said. “Modern technology essentially allows you to use a camera as a scanner.”
City attorney Jeff Turnage declined to comment on city policy about taking pictures of public documents in an email to The Dispatch Friday.
“Given the fact that the Complaint puts the City and the Dispatch on opposite sides in litigation, I will not be able to respond to your email substantively,” Turnage said. “I will make the City’s position about your complaint known when we file our response with the Ethics Commission.”
Williams did not respond to a message from The Dispatch by press time.