City of Jackson makes final payment in Ethics Commission judgment after withholding some records from WLBT for two years

Landmark 2021 decision required Jackson to pay more than $170k for legal fees incurred by Gray Television.
Published: May. 9, 2023 at 7:36 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Nearly two years after the Mississippi Ethics Commission told the city of Jackson to pay Gray Television more than $170,000 in legal fees for a battle over violations of the state’s Public Records Act, the city has paid that amount in full.

The Commission ruled in August 2021 that Jackson must pay $170,395.50 to partially reimburse Gray Television, the parent company of WLBT, for expenses it incurred in bringing the hearing forward.

The payment, the largest amount of money lobbed against a municipality by the Ethics Commission in Mississippi history, represents a rarity for the commission as well, as it rarely enforces legal fees for public records violations.

The initial complaint came after this reporter filed seven requests for records from the Jackson Police Department between January and June of 2019.

After the city failed to produce most of what we asked for, attorneys for WLBT filed a public records complaint in October of that year.

Over the course of the next twelve months, our lawyers tried to sit down with the city for a year to allow the Commission to mediate and resolve the complaint, but the city stalled and forced WLBT to request a hearing.

That hearing, which ended in January 2021, involved nine witnesses -- most of whom were city employees.

The Ethics Commission ruled in August 2021 that the city of Jackson violated the Mississippi Public Records Act and fined them $900 dollars for violations of statute as well as Gray Television’s legal fees.

Some of the Commission’s requirements have yet to be addressed fully by city leaders, however.

Commission Executive Director Tom Hood’s final order required Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba to appoint a public records officer for each of the city’s ten departments, make sure those employees undergo annual training, and generate weekly reports showing all pending records requests to help keep the city accountable.

At a court proceeding last year, one of Jackson’s attorneys told WLBT the city did appoint those necessary employees but would not provide the information when asked.

Those positions also cannot be found on the city’s website.

It also only recently — over the last few months — started posting those weekly reports, more than a year after the Commission ordered the city to do so.

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