On November, 20th, 2023 HPNM went to the Jones County Circuit Clerk’s Office to review and photograph campaign finance reports. At the time HPNM was informed by clerks there would be a $10.00 fee for the assembly of the reports and $.50 cents per page (for copies) for each photograph taken, even though no copies were requested. The records were not made available at that time.
HPNM attempted to contact Circuit Clerk Concetta Brooks multiple times, but those messages were unreturned by Brooks. HPNM then contacted Tom Hood, the President of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, which oversees issues dealing with the Mississippi Public Records Act. Hood informed HPNM that charging any fee for access to review those records would be a violation of MS Code and cited a near identical case that was ruled upon by the Commission.
The case addressed an issue involving a reporter with The Commercial Dispatch, who requested to review and photograph campaign finance reports related to a Columbus, Mississippi city election (see full ruling below. The ruling stated,
FINDINGS OF FACT
“The Commercial Dispatch alleges the City of Columbus violated the Public Records Act because City Registrar Brenda Williams would not allow Dispatch News Editor Isabelle Altman to photograph public records. Specifically, on June 2, 2021, Ms. Altman appeared in person at the Office of the City Registrar and asked to view campaign finance reports from municipal candidates running for city mayor and council positions. Ms. Williams allowed Ms. Altman view to the records, but specified that she could not photograph them.”
“In response, the city claims that the complainant did not properly request public records, such that this issue is not ripe for adjudication. The city’s adopted policy concerning public records requests requires the submission of a written request on the city’s form. The complainant did not submit a written request in this case. However, the city concedes that “ordinarily there would be no logical reason to prohibit a photograph of a public document.”
CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
“The Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983 (the “Act”), codified at Section 25-61-1, et seq., Miss. Code of 1972, provides that public records shall be available for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by law and places a duty upon public bodies to provide access to such records. Section 25-61-2 and Section 25-61-5. “Public records” are defined as all documents or records “having been used, being in use, or prepared, possessed or retained for use in the conduct, transaction or performance of any business, transaction, work, duty or function of any public body.” Section 25-61-3(b). In interpreting the Act, the Mississippi Supreme Court has held that the Act should be construed liberally, while exceptions must be applied narrowly.”
“Mississippi Dept. of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks v. Mississippi Wildlife Enforcement Officers’ Assn, Inc. Records filed with a municipal clerk (or the city’s registrar, as in this case) regarding campaign contributions and expenditures pursuant to the subsection regarding disclosure of campaign finances in the Mississippi Election Code (Section 23-15-801, et. seq) are public records, subject to the Public Records Act. Section 23-15-805(c) of the Mississippi Code states:”
“Candidates for municipal office, and every political committee which makes reportable contributions to or expenditures in support of or in opposition to a candidate for such office, or makes reportable contributions to or expenditures in support of or in opposition to a municipal ballot measure shall file all reports required by this article in the office of the municipal clerk of the municipality in which the election occurs, or directly to the Office of the Secretary of State.”
“Section 23-15-805(d) specifically directs municipal clerks to make ‘all reports received under this subsection available for public inspection and copying’ and ‘preserve the reports for a period of five (5) years.”
“2.4 However, some public records, such as these campaign finance reports, or, for example, minutes of public bodies (see, Mississippi Open Meetings Act, Section 21-41-11 and Miss. Att’y Gen. Op. 2020-00021, (July 31, 2020)), or land rolls (see, Section 27-35-123 of the Mississippi Code and Miss. Att’y Gen. Op. 2015-00369, McKenzie (Oct. 30, 2015)), are statutorily required to be maintained in a manner so as to be readily available to the public. In contrast, see also, Miss. Att’y Gen. Op. 2016-00384, Criswell (Aug. 26, 2016) (Section 45-9-151 of the Mississippi Code which mandates the maintenance of a Docket of Seized Deadly Weapons which may be maintained electronically, does not contain a specific restriction on the manner in which the electronic documents must be maintained.)”
“For these kinds of public records, an oral request and prompt access must be allowed.”Additionally, in this case, the City Registrar waived the requirement of a written public records request when she allowed Ms. Altman to view the campaign finance records. Thus, the city violated the Public Records Act by restricting the photographing of public records for which access had already been granted.”
CONCLUSION OF THE COMMISSION
“WHEREFORE, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED as follows:”
SO ORDERED, this the 9th day of December, 2021.”