Council President: City 'Hiccups' With Public-Records Response Need to End | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Council President: City 'Hiccups' With Public-Records Response Need to End

Melvin Priester Jr. is one of the authors of the resolution supporting timely compliance with records requests.

Melvin Priester Jr. is one of the authors of the resolution supporting timely compliance with records requests. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

— Council President Melvin Priester Jr. wants the whole of city government, including Mayor Tony Yarber's administration, to make public records a high priority. The Ward 2 representative co-authored a resolution "seeking timely compliance with open records requests by city departments" with Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote. The Jackson City Council will vote on the resolution Tuesday, March 22, at 10 a.m. at its meeting at Tougaloo College.

"We think that it's important to comply in a timely manner with open-records requests, and we want to try to make a concerted effort to improve on that," Priester said. "We have purchased this new technology to let us do that. But we don't have many documents on the (city) clerk's end. So we have to work to have better collaboration between our office and the administration."

The Jackson City Clerk's office, he said, unlike the other departments of the city, does not fall under the authority of the mayor's office, but instead is appointed by and works for the council itself. This means that when a request is made through the clerk's office and the information or document in question is in the possession of a department under the mayoral administration, a delay might cause the City to fall out of compliance with the state's laws concerning timely release of public documents, whether or not the delay is intentional.

Priester acknowledged that the City has not responded in a timely manner to some recent requests, including several the Jackson Free Press submitted months ago.

"In light of recent hiccups with open-records requests, (this resolution is) to say that this is something that is important to us and reach out to public and the administration and say look lets get better on this," Priester said,

Recently several local media outlets, including the Jackson Free Press, have made pointed accusations against the City for delaying the delivery of documents, including a refusal to provide a basic list of city contractors. To Priester, it is more of an issue of two different and separate wings of the city not communicating in an efficient manner.

"When I say that we have had some recent hiccups, I think that is an example of one where we didn't get documents to the requesting party in a timely manner. We have a number of things going on where think people in Jackson are deserving of a true commitment to transparency," Priester said.

"Part of the reason we are doing this resolution is to say to everyone involved in this process, both within our control as a city council and on the (mayoral) administration side, too, let's not let these things drop," he added.

The integration of a new Internet-based records request system has enabled citizens to file requests online, and this new technology as well as the proliferation of high-speed communications has set new expectations for the City that Priester said they must rise up to fulfill.

"I think in the past folks haven't treated it with the seriousness that it deserved," Priester said. "I also think that the Internet and technology have changed expectations about the availability of documents. Where it was not as important in the past, that the way people consume news now is different."

An essential characteristic of this brave new world is that invested citizens in an open democratic process demand to be privy to the hard documents that their city government uses to make the decisions that affect them, and to have access to those documents in a timely manner.

"People want to be able to see primary source documents because the Internet and technology make it so easy to see primary source documents," Priester said. "One of the reasons we wanted to do a resolution in support of trying to handle open records requests better is so that we can really hammer home particularly to all the different people who touch on fulfilling public records requests that we view this as a high-priority because things are different now than they used to be."

In a touch of irony, this reporter went by the city clerk's office this morning to obtain a copy of the resolution as proposed to show readers what the council would be considering. The representative there explained that a copy would not be available until after the meeting next week. When asked about this, Priester explained that while the item was listed on the agenda at the moment, that it was not necessarily finished on his end. He, though, provided the resolution just before this story went live.

The Jackson Free Press reached out to the mayor's spokewoman, Shelia Byrd, right before press time about the resolution. She said she would examine it and get back to us.

The council, Priester said, has a couple of deadlines to meet before each meeting. According to the laws regarding open meetings in Mississippi, they have to release an agenda prior to the meeting, and Priester said they try to do so at least a day before the meeting, but usually on the Wednesday a week before the meeting. Between that date and the meeting, the documents to be discussed, including this resolution, might be altered or deleted from the agenda entirely. Thus, he said, as one of the authors of the resolution, the clerk's office did not have a copy to make available to the public.

The City of Jackson received a grant to improve its data and transparency last year.

"The Office of Innovation has already secured external support and expertise from the Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative – What Works Cities. In partnership with this office, What Works Cities will help Jackson forge a system of data integrity, data transparency, and overall organizational efficiency," the mayor's office stated in the City's 2015 "Performance Report, posted on the City's website.

"The mayor is focusing on data and transparency, and the council is focusing on transparency, too," Priester said today. "That's the goal of this resolution."

Email city reporter Tim Summers, Jr. at tim@jacksonfreepress.com See more local news at jfp.ms/localnews and more coverage of government transparency at jfp.ms/sunshine.

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