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City of Jackson slapped with largest fine in state history following WLBT ethics complaint

Decision comes more than two years after city failed to fill multiple record requests from 3 On Your Side
Published: Aug. 6, 2021 at 3:40 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The city of Jackson will be required to pay more than $170,000 in legal fees to WLBT’s parent company, Gray Television, after the Mississippi Ethics Commission ruled the city violated state law by taking more than a year to provide public records to WLBT.

The fine represents the largest amount of money levied against a public body by the commission in Mississippi history, and will be one of a handful of times that the commission has required a public body to pay legal fees.

The decision comes more than two years after WLBT made seven requests for public records to the Jackson Police Department, involving emails, memos and crime statistics.

State law requires a public body to provide records within seven business days of a request being filed.

In the most egregious example, the city waited nearly 600 days to produce a portion of the phone and text logs 3 On Your Side requested from JPD Chief James Davis.

After the city failed to produce records in five of those seven requests, WLBT and its legal team filed an ethics complaint in October 2019.

Despite that complaint, lead attorney Emmy Parsons argued before the commission last month that the city still did not produce any additional records for 10 months, which led to a hearing that began in November 2020 involving nine witnesses, mostly current and former city employees.

During that hearing, 3 On Your Side’s C.J. LeMaster testified that inconsistencies with communication from the city and apparent issues with the system used to handle requests, GovQA, contributed to the delays.

For example, Deputy City Attorney Kristen Love claimed during the hearing and before the commission in July that delays came because WLBT did not pay in some instances.

Parsons countered, with testimony from LeMaster, that cost estimates for records don’t allow for payment at all within the GovQA system; the estimate has to be converted to an invoice first, which a city employee would have to initiate.

Neither Love nor any city representative attended the commission’s meeting Friday, when the final order against Jackson was taken up and unanimously approved.

Some employees who testified during the hearing expressed that they do their best to follow the law, but either don’t have the resources needed to complete that task or aren’t properly trained to be able to do that.

Municipal Clerk Angela Harris said during the hearing she didn’t even know about the ethics complaint until nearly a year after it had been filed, despite working as a deputy clerk for most of that time.

Safiya Omari, chief of staff for Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, testified she isn’t satisfied with the way the city responds to public records requests and wants to improve the process.

In May 2020, the city council voted to create a department of municipal clerk that would report to the mayor’s office -- and Omari.

“Now that we are in charge of the city clerk’s office who handles these requests, I can work to make sure that those things happen,” Omari said during the hearing.

When pressed for specific plans or meetings by Parsons, however, Omari said there was no plan at this point.

The final order issued by the commission Friday will not only require the city to pay $170,397.50 to reimburse legal expenses but also mandate Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba take several accountability measures to ensure the city does not violate the Public Records Act in the future, such as designating public records officers for the city and each of its 10 departments.

Those officers must also undergo at least two hours of training on the Public Records Act each year from a curriculum approved by the commission’s executive director, Tom Hood.

Additionally, the city will be required to post weekly reports on Jackson’s website showing all pending requests for public records to promote transparency.

WLBT reached out to city communications director Michelle Atoa Friday for comment on the ruling, but she has not returned our requests.

“Confidence is based upon trust, which can only come from transparency. JPD and the rest of city government must be open and honest with the people it serves,” Hood wrote in the final order approved Friday. “The city’s officials and employees, especially those in JPD, need to learn that the Public Records Act is not a nuisance. Rather, it is a fundamental obligation of municipal government just like police protection, fire protection, water and sewer services. Without transparency in government there can be no confidence among the governed, and without the support of the community, those in government cannot succeed.”

Hood said the city of Jackson had violated the Mississippi Public Records Act fifteen times in nearly thirteen years, prompting the commission to take significant action for what it saw as “deliberate indifference to its obligations” under law.

“The commission and its hearing officers have given the city more than enough warnings and guidance, more than enough chances to comply. Yet the city and its elected officials and, therefore, its employees, have continued to ignore the law and persistently failed to meet legal obligations with no reasonable explanation,” Hood wrote.

The ruling also represents a significant increase in the typical fines assessed against public bodies and those responsible for violating public records laws, which carry a penalty of $100 per violation plus “reasonable expenses.”

Under that statute, the commission also fined the city of Jackson an additional $900 for nine separate violations of state law in this order.

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