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Searching Public Records

The Sun-Herald recently had a very good editiorial on the high cost of searching public records.

Mississippians should not have to pay unrealistically high fees to find out what public officials and agencies are doing.

To prevent that from happening, both House Bill 1048 and Senate Bill 2921 would improve access to public records by restricting what can be charged to fulfill public records requests. Although the law already limits the fee for copies of public records to “actual costs,” that cost is sometimes inflated by public officials who charge exorbitant pay rates for the person doing the copying or who hire expensive outside consultants to fulfill the public records request, according to Barbara Powell, a lobbyist for the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information.

The Legislature can and should prohibit these inflated charges by restricting the labor fee to persons who are employees of the public agency and by requiring that any staff time included in the cost be at the pay scale of the lowest level employee competent to assemble the response to the request.

SB 2921 passed the Senate’s Judiciary B Committee but was killed on the Senate floor. By approving HB 1048, the senators on the committee can give their colleagues an opportunity to reconsider the matter.

As Powell points out: Ten states limit the cost of producing documents to copying costs alone. And Louisiana specifically forbids the government from charging anything for producing a public record unless the request requires that the custodian of the record make the record available after normal business hours.

Mississippians should be encouraged, not hindered, in their efforts to find out what public officials and their employees are doing.

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