The city of Columbus has asked the Mississippi Ethics Commission to dismiss a public records complaint The Dispatch filed against it during this year’s municipal elections.
The Dispatch filed the complaint in June against both the city and former registrar Brenda Williams, after Williams preemptively instructed a reporter that she was not allowed to photograph public documents she was inspecting.
On June 2, Isabelle Altman, who was employed as news editor for The Dispatch, visited the registrar’s office in person to inspect campaign finance reports filed by municipal election candidates for the general election. Williams brought her the documents, then told Altman she could look at them but not photograph them. The Dispatch filed the public records complaint against Williams and the city the next day.
In the complaint, The Dispatch cites a Mississippi statute related to elections (23-15-805) that expressly states campaign finance reports are public records.
In the city’s response and motion to dismiss, prepared by City Attorney Jeff Turnage on June 25 in the final days of former mayor Robert Smith’s administration, the city claims the Ethics Commission has no jurisdiction in the matter since the complaint cited an election law and not the Public Records Act itself.
Turnage also notes The Dispatch did not supply a written request for the campaign finance reports, which would have given Williams up to seven working days to supply them. The city has a policy that provides for requiring a written request to inspect or copy public documents, but it is not always required.
Williams did not mention or require a written request from Altman on June 2. She also provided no reason for her instruction not to photograph the documents.
“Ms. Williams gave the complainant all the time she needed to copy down what was in the records using a pen and paper,” Turnage wrote in the city’s response. “While ordinarily there would be no logical reason to prohibit a photograph of a public document, in the absence of a written request, the complaint is not ripe for adjudication.”
Turnage also notes The Dispatch’s endorsement of then mayoral candidate Keith Gaskin, which printed June 6, four days after Altman inspected the records, as a contributing factor for Williams’ denying the reporter the right to photograph the documents.
“Right or wrong, Ms. Williams felt that Ms. Altman’s presence, taking pictures in the same room where absentee voting was ongoing, might well have an intimidating effect on electors voting absentee,” the response reads.
In its complaint, The Dispatch notes a similar instance in 2019 where Trotter Convention Center Director Rogena Bonner attempted to deny Dispatch managing editor Zack Plair the right to photograph rental agreements he was inspecting.
In that case, Plair had submitted a written request to inspect the documents and arrived at Trotter Convention Center at a time set by Bonner. Plair pulled out his cell phone to photograph the documents, and Bonner instructed him he wasn’t allowed. When Plair told Bonner the law did allow it and he took the photographs anyway, Bonner called the police.
Plair was arrested several days later for the incident and faces misdemeanor charges that are still pending.
The Dispatch claims both instances together “establish a pattern of city policy that effectively denies adequate access to public documents for no clear reason under the law.”
Turnage, in the city’s response, argues the 2019 Trotter incident is not relevant, since Plair did take photos of the rental agreements and The Dispatch published them.
Editor’s note: The Dispatch received a copy of the city’s response approximately a week after city attorney Turnage submitted it but failed to report on it at the time. This delayed report was published as soon as we recognized the oversight.