- Associated Press - Saturday, March 15, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippians seeking government records could soon have a stronger appeal route while avoiding court, and they might be charged less for the records.

Senate Bill 2507 would allow the Ethics Commission to enforce the state Public Records Act instead of only issuing advisory opinions. Meanwhile, House Bill 928 would require agencies to use the lowest-paid qualified employee to review records, sometimes cutting charges for staff time.

The Ethics Commission bill was headed to final negotiations between the House and Senate. Both chambers have agreed on the cost-limitation bill, and it was headed to Gov. Phil Bryant for his consideration.

Neither bill will lift all the hurdles that sometimes stand in the way of people seeking records. Ethics Commission orders could still be appealed to chancery court. And agencies will still be able to charge for making copies and searching emails under the cost bill.

Still, public records law users are supporting the measures, saying they will improve on Mississippi’s current laws.

“It would be a tremendous help,” said James Hendrix, who runs the Jackson Jambalaya blog. Hendrix has both sought opinions from the Ethics Commission and sued agencies in chancery court seeking records. “This would save people from having to spend money on attorneys to go into court.”

Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association, said giving the power to enforce public records law to the Ethics Commission “only makes sense” because the body already has the power to enforce state open meetings laws. Bruce said the proposal had been pending for several years.

The Ethics Commission has issued 42 public records opinions since 2008. Executive Director Tom Hood said the commission wants to expand its authority.

“We don’t have any authority to subpoena or review disputed documents,” Hood said.

He said he didn’t think giving the commission more power would increase the number of disputes it hears.

“In fact it could go down,” Hood said, citing the commission’s experience when it gained the power to fine individual officials for breaking the state open meetings law.

As amended in the House, the bill would require the Ethics Commission to act on a records complaint within 30 days. That could make using the commission more attractive than a lawsuit. Hendrix said he sued Hinds County in chancery court in 2009 because he was trying to quickly get access to a legal settlement agreement between the county and Motorola Solutions. The lawsuit ended up taking two years to resolve.

House Bill 928 takes aim at agencies that might use expensive employees to review and process records requests, charging fees of requestors. State law says agencies may require citizens to reimburse search costs, although agencies aren’t allowed to charge more than the actual cost of searching, reviewing or copying records.

Search and review fees can get expensive. For example, in March 2013, the governor’s office charged The Associated Press $285 to produce copies of nine months of Gov. Phil Bryant’s calendar, including $150 for legal review and $135 for compilation and review by technical staff.

“We wanted to make sure the cost was limited,” Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, said of staff costs. “We wanted to make it reasonable.”

The Mississippi Development Authority demanded more than $16,000 for a request examining contracting practices last fall. The agency said it identified more than 23,000 emails and sought more than $11,000 to produce copies at 25 cents per page. The agency also refused to provide the files in electronic format.

The Ethics Commission suggests that agencies charge 15 cents per page or less for copies, but many agencies charge more. State law requires the Insurance Department to charge 50 cents a page, for example.

Collins said she’d be willing to consider those issues in the future.

Hood said he hears lots of complaints about costs, and he said the cost of reviewing large numbers of emails can quickly expand.

“The common scenario is the requester thinks the fee is too high, but they go ahead and pay it anyway,” Hood said.

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Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy

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