Commission: City of Jackson violated state law by denying record - - Jackson, MS

Commission: City of Jackson violated state law by denying records to WLBT

JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

A 3 On Your Side Investigation has led to a serious ruling against the city of Jackson: City employees broke state law by not releasing public documents.

The final order, issued by the Mississippi Ethics Commission on February 14, indicates the city violated the Mississippi Public Records Act by withholding some records originally requested more than eighteen months ago as part of an investigation into the spending of taxpayer dollars.

It also exposed a potential problem with the city's record-keeping practices, as city employees were unable to locate more than a dozen records requested.

Between June and August of 2016, the city worked with 3 On Your Side to clarify the request to reduce costs estimated by Jackson Deputy City Attorney Kristen Blanchard, after a cost estimate in July indicated fulfilling the request would cost an estimated $1,500.

The city subsequently denied part of the request for "demand letters received and settlement agreements executed" for a three-year stretch, saying "the actual settlement agreement is confidential" and the "executing parties are legally prohibited from disclosing it to third parties."

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It did, however, release agreements that were disclosed during the course of Jackson City Council meetings and required council approval.

Upon further review, Blanchard determined many settlement agreements did not contain confidentiality provisions and agreed to release all of those once they had consent from the parties involved.

Blanchard also agreed to do the same for those containing confidentiality provisions but would need to prepare an invoice for that request.

In response, WLBT filed a public records complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission on Sept. 16, 2016, requesting all settlement agreements and ordering the city to reimburse the station for expenses incurred in bringing the complaint, as well as fining the city $100 for each record wrongfully denied.

WLBT argued that the city's untimely and repeated denial of requests for these records "on grounds it knew were erroneous, as is evident by the city's repeated assertion and then abandonment of defenses to production" was a knowing and willful denial of access to public records.

The city countered that it operated in good faith and "under the belief that all actions taken" were in accordance with state law.

The Ethics Commission staff worked for several months with the city of Jackson to produce the remaining settlement agreements, but those efforts were halted once the city concluded 19 of those agreements could not be delivered because those documents were no longer in the city's files or archives.

February's ruling established that no public body can agree to make a public record confidential by contract; rather it must be grounded in law or a court decision.

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