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August 5, 2017 10:16:53 PM
A preliminary ruling by the Mississippi Ethics Commission recommends fining Starkville City Clerk Lesa Hardin $100 for the city's failure to meet a statutory deadline for answering an open records request for minutes of previous Starkville Airport Board meetings.
The recommendation, spurred by a complaint filed by former George M. Bryan Airport Fixed Based Operator Kenneth Aasand, sets a tentative hearing Aug. 23 for a possible city objection, but a challenge is not expected at this time.
Mayor Lynn Spruill said policies and procedures are now in place to "prevent another such instance" of the mistake from occurring again and said she has "the utmost faith" in Hardin.
Hardin did not return a phone call Saturday.
"I am saddened that Ms. Hardin has been personally caught up in an issue of timing coming from a dispute between the airport and a contractor," Spruill said. "It is important for us to have superior communication and follow-through between our off-site city interests, such as the airport, so that this oversight does not recur."
Aasand, who was previously engaged in a dispute with the city over unpaid aviation fuel, filed public records requests March 28 seeking copies of the Starkville Municipal Airport Board's minutes for the months of December 2016, January and February.
After he failed to receive a response from the city 15 days after his filing, he submitted a complaint to MEC.
Starkville eventually answered his request, but the city's response to the complaint states a breakdown in communication between Hardin and George M. Bryan Airport Manager Rodney Lincoln led to the delay.
In the city's defense, it admitted to the error and attributed the mistake to a "lack of communication and follow-up."
A similar communication breakdown between Hardin and a deputy clerk led to another untimely response to an Aasand-filed public records request, the MEC's preliminary ruling states.
Mississippi's Public Records Act provides up to 14 working days for the production of public records when the public body provides a specific, written explanation as to why the information cannot be delivered within seven working dates of a request.
State law also fines those who deny access to public records or charge unreasonable fees for their production $100 per violation.
"The city clerk was responsible for receipt of the public records requests and, ultimately, providing Aasand a response to those requests," the preliminary ruling states. "The city clerk failed to timely communicate with other city officials concerning the status of the first public records request and failed to timely communicate with Aasand concerning both public records requests. Moreover, the city clerk failed to timely remit documents she received which were responsive to Aasand's second public records request."
Since Starkville canceled its contract with Aasand's Grassroots Aviation and gave the former fixed base operator 90 days to wind down his airport operations in 2016, he has filed at least four complaints with MEC stemming from public records requests related to the airport board.
The most recent MEC ruling is the first one to levy a monetary penalty against the city.
Aldermen voted in June to pay Aasand $2,081.56 for the disputed aviation fuel contingent on him signing a settlement agreement with the city freeing Starkville from future claims associated with his tenure as fixed base operator.
After Aasand was given 90 days to close his operations, residual aviation fuel purchased by his business remained in at least two airport tanks. The city ordered the tanks filled after it was believed he abandoned the premises, Aasand said, intermingling his fuel with the city's order.
The city previously claimed there was no measurable fuel left in the tanks at the time of the transfer, but a previous Aasand public records complaint included his own record of fuel levels as the basis of the claim.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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