Our View: Public records should be accessible to all

July 11, 2018 10:49:24 AM



Tuesday, The Dispatch filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission against the Columbus-Lowndes Convention & Visitors Bureau. 


In May, when The Dispatch first heard that CVB employees had been terminated we asked CVB executive director Nancy Carpenter for information on CVB staffing and employee salaries. When that information was not provided, The Dispatch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the CVB's payroll records that would verify the names and salaries of all CVB employees as of May 1 and May 31 in order to verify changes in staffing and payroll during that month. 


When the CVB contacted The Dispatch to say the information was available, we were informed that the cost of compiling that information would be $488.30. 


State law allows public entities to charge for the time it takes to compile the requested documents and for copies, but they have to use the lowest paid employee qualified to do the work. 


Dispatch publisher Peter Imes emailed Carpenter, questioning the charges. 


In response, Carpenter said she and others involved would waive their fees, dropping the cost to a still-excessive $308.30. 


Remember, we were trying to learn what employees were no longer with the CVB through examining payroll records. 


Dispatch managing editor Zack Plair communicated with Carpenter via email to make sure she understood that we were looking for actual, verifiable records rather than just a list put together by the CVB. 


We paid the fee, and the CVB provided its response in a timely manner. 


Instead of providing actual public records, the CVB sent us a one-page summary spreadsheet with payroll information. They had presumably created the document and gave us no actual public documents to back up that data. 


This is the basis of our complaint to the Ethics Commission: The CVB did not provide the information it was required to provide under the law and the CVB charged an inflated price for the information it provided. 


Some may argue our complaint is excessive. After all, the CVB provided us an easy-to-read summary of the information. And a newspaper can afford $300, right?  


We believe that our action was appropriate and serves the public interest. 


Under our state's public information laws, citizens -- not just media -- have a right to request information from entities who are entrusted with taxpayer funds. 


The public has a right to see the actual records held by a government entity at a reasonable price. When that information is limited or when fees are excessively high, it can be interpreted as an attempt to discourage citizens from exercising their rights to the information. 


We hope our complaint against the CVB serves to remind all government entities of their obligation to the public when requests for information are made. 


Citizens have a right to know how their tax dollars are being managed.