It is fair to say that access to records at Jackson City Hall under the late Mayor Frank Melton was hit and miss.
Early in his administration, The Clarion-Ledger sued the city to force Melton to turn over public records after Melton tore up a handful of the newspaper’s requests in a fit of pique. The city settled the suit and agreed to be more compliant, but the record thereafter was spotty.
Under the system set up under Melton, every request for records is reviewed by the legal department and nothing is released before the 14-day legal window has elapsed. Often the requests are filled late; often they are denied.
There was some hope that this would change under the new administration of Mayor Harvey Johnson, who talked a good game about transparency during his campaign.
Somehow that message has not trickled down. Crime reporter Nicklaus Lovelady (love the man, love the name) shared with me a familiar rejection in his attempt to get copies of police incident reports. The response indicates some of the problems with the city’s approach.
First, annotation shows that Nick’s July 13 request did not make it to the Jackson Police Department’s records keeper until July 20, taking a full week to travel from the City Clerk’s office across the street to police headquarters.
On the 14th working day, Nick got his answer: “The reports you request are exempt from public disclosure. See Ms. Code 45-29-1. The reports can only be received by way of subpoena.”
True, police incident reports were routinely denied in Mississippi under a broad exemption to the state’s Public Records Act for investigative law enforcement records. However, last year the Legislature passed a law specifically requiring police departments to make incident reports available to public inspection.
The code section referred to in the denial was repealed as part of the act. You can look it up yourself.
I’m surprised the city’s legal department did not know this. It was in all the papers.
Chris Joyner’s Clarion-Ledger Blog