Records requests can drag on

Published 11:37 pm Monday, January 25, 2010

JACKSON (AP) — Jackson City Councilman Jeff Weill recently learned what is it like trying to get public records in Mississippi when he decided to look over some city accounting records.

‘‘It’s enormously frustrating,’’ Weill, a lawyer, said.

In December, Weill filed an open records request for the information when Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. refused to provide it, accusing the councilman of trying to micromanage the city.

According to state law, the city had 14 days — not counting weekends and holidays — to provide the information. That means most citizens can wait nearly three weeks to get a response from their government.

‘‘It’s vexing for someone who should have this information at my fingertips to have to go through a cumbersome legal process to get information from an administration that I am charged with monitoring,’’ Weill said, after more than a week of waiting. ‘‘I would prefer a much shorter process. If there is a reason for a longer time period, then surely the governmental entity could request additional time.’’

Mississippi’s response time for public records requests is among the longest in the nation among states that specify a time period.

Only two states — Maryland and South Carolina — have a longer wait time for records. Seven states have a retrieval period as short as three days.

In neighboring Arkansas, government officials are required by law to immediately turn over public documents for inspection, unless they are in storage, in which case they have three days to retrieve them. Louisiana has a three-day limit.

, while Tennessee is among five states with a seven-day response time.

Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri journalism school, said Mississippi’s exceptionally long response time looks ‘‘awfully tired and old’’ in today’s fast-moving society.

‘‘In a world in which we are moving extraordinarily rapidly from paper to all-electronic documents the notion of (what is) reasonable is narrowing quickly,’’ Davis said. ‘‘If you can e-mail me something, why is it taking so long?’’

Davis said Mississippians can reasonably assume that the 14-day period is not entirely used to search for documents.

‘‘Within the bureaucracy, they begin to see it as a waiting period,’’ he said.

Davis said most public records requests are made by individual citizens, many of whom are trying to get government documents for the first and only time. A long waiting period gives them time to stew over the delay, or perhaps, give up, he said.

‘‘To me, it breeds cynicism and disgust with government at the local level over and over again,’’ he said.

Jackson spokesman Chris Mims said Weill’s request was filled ahead of the 14-day window and he said the mayor’s policy is to fill requests as quickly as possible.

‘‘It just depends on what it is. If it is something that we can easily track down, sometimes it just takes a day or two,’’ Mims said.

For example, most requests for police incident reports are filled very quickly, he said. Other, more complex, requests take time, he said.

That is a change from the policy of Johnson’s predecessor, the late Mayor Frank Melton, whose administration rarely turned over any document until the full 14 days had elapsed. In fact, The Clarion-Ledger took the city to court in 2006 to compel the release of overdue documents.

State Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, attempted last year to reduce the response time to seven working days, with an extension for more voluminous requests. The bill, which also included language on how much governments could charge for requests, failed when the Senate voted 26-23 to send the bill back to committee, effectively killing it.

Blount was the public information officer for the secretary of state’s office before his election to the Senate and has been on both sides of public records requests. He said the response time should be shortened.

‘‘There are some requests that require more time,’’ Blount said. ‘‘But most requests are basic, and I think in the real world, in some cases, agencies will say, ’Look, the law gives us the right to wait 14 days and we’re going to make you wait 14 days.’’’

Blount said the Senate may revisit the issue this year.

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On the Net:

Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information: http://www.mcfoi.org