The City of Jackson took over a year to provide public records to WLBT, a local news outlet that requested the records under Mississippi’s public records laws. Those laws require public records to be provided within seven business days. The city’s egregious delay will cost it and its residents in a big way. Last week, the state’s Ethics Commission ordered Jackson to pay more than $170,000 in legal fees to WLBT – the largest fee award ever levied against a government entity by the commission.
WLBT filed an ethics complaint against the city in October 2019, after the city failed to respond or responded exceedingly late to seven requests for public records to the Jackson Police Department for crime statistics, emails, memos, and related documents.
The city failed to respond to five of the seven requests. For the other requests, the city took excessively long to provide the requested records. For example, the city took nearly 600 days to produce a portion of the phone and text logs WLBT requested from JPD Chief James Davis.
Even after the ethics complaint was filed, the city still did not produce any additional records for 10 months.
The ethics complaint resulted in a hearing before the Mississippi Ethics Commission in November 2020. Nine witnesses appeared before the commission, mostly current and former city employees. On August 6, 2021, the Ethics Commission voted unanimously to approve a final order against the city of Jackson. The order requires the city to pay $170,397.50 to reimburse WLBT’s legal expenses and also fined the city an additional $900 for nine separate violations of state law.
The order also mandates that Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba take several measures to ensure the city does not violate the Public Records Act in the future, such as designating public records officers for the city and each of its 10 departments. Those officers must also undergo at least two hours of training on the Public Records Act each year from a curriculum approved by the commission’s executive director, Tom Hood.
Additionally, the city will be required to post weekly reports on Jackson’s website showing all pending requests for public records to promote transparency.
“The commission and its hearing officers have given the city more than enough warnings and guidance, more than enough chances to comply. Yet the city and its elected officials and, therefore, its employees, have continued to ignore the law and persistently failed to meet legal obligations with no reasonable explanation,” Hood wrote.
The Public Records Act provides a fine of up to $100 per violation, and also allows the Ethics Commission to impose reasonable expenses against government entities who have Complaints filed against them.
A frustration often expressed by advocates of government transparency is that the Ethics Commission rarely imposes significant costs against violators, and the $100 fine, by itself, amounts to a meaningless slap on the wrist.
For that reason, while it’s unfortunate that Jackson’s taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the city administration’s deliberate indifference to state law, last week’s historic fee award is welcome news for those who believe that government must be honest, transparent, and accountable to its citizens, and should face real consequences when it fails to do so.