March 12, 2014 10:30:08 AM
I feel compelled to write a letter in answer to The Dispatch's "Our View" piece from March 7, 2014, titled "City's policies are an insult to the people." The column claims that the people of Columbus should be insulted by the conduct of The City. In actuality, the column was an insult to anyone minimally familiar with the Open Meetings Act and the Public Records Act. Worse, it was an insult to those readers who are not familiar with those regulations because the article was false and/or misleading in its factual assertions and erroneous in its conclusions. This letter will address your specific allegations one at a time. But, before I get to that, I feel compelled to again remind your readers that the erroneous nature of your paper's reporting should come as no surprise to anyone. It has been happening for years. I am not sure if it is just sloppiness alone or sloppiness and a dislike for me and other City Officials, but one thing is for sure. Your opinion column referenced above is just as loose and just as sloppy as The Dispatch's coverage of City Government typically is. Here is why I say that, item by item.
First, the Opinion Column says that holding "non-quorum" meetings denies citizens the rights to attend meetings. You then state that the Open Meetings Laws contain rules to prevent a meeting with less than a quorum. That is just false. In Section 25-41-3(b) of the Open Meeting Law, the Mississippi Legislature defined "meeting" as "an assemblage of members of a public body at which official acts may be taken upon a matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power ..." If there is non-quorum of officials, they cannot take official acts. Thus, by default, a non-quorum gathering is not a "meeting." If there is not a "meeting," then the Open Meetings Law has no applicability. Birney, we both know there is nothing in the Open Meetings Act to prevent gatherings with less than a quorum. But you attempt to convince the public that the City "thumbs its nose" at the people and breaks the law. If your comments were about a person, I could characterize them as false and defamatory.
Second, the column attacks the City's handling of Public Records Requests. Your characterization of our handling of such matters is that we at the City "pick and choose which public information we make available to the public or needlessly delay releasing that information." And again you state that there are Rules to prevent these kinds of "abuses of power." Birney, that is another false accusation and I would hope that whoever wrote the column would have known it was false. Once again, the Mississippi Legislature passed Section 25-61-5 of the Mississippi Code. In that section the Legislature provided that if a city enacts a policy for production of public records, it can have up to seven days to produce documents requested (not 14 days unless it is unable to gather the information in seven days, and then 14 is the maximum time period allowed by law). The City enacted a policy years ago, following the guidelines of the Legislature and has a public records request form. The City could charge a fee for the City's employee's time and could charge expenses of copying and gathering up the records requested with every such record request. The person making such a request should remit payment for such costs. I cannot remember a time in recent history when your paper was denied any records. Nor can I remember a time when the City charged The Dispatch for the City's out-of-pocket costs associated with making copies of public documents. The Legislature knew when it enacted the Public Records Act that a governmental entity cannot be expected to continually expend its time and energy responding to requests for documents without being reimbursed for such costs. If anything, the insult to the people was probably giving documents to the media without charging a fee for collection and copying it. So, I have to ask. Why should the taxpayers have to pay City employees to make copies of papers about which they might have no interest? They should not.
You also attack the City for not turning over police arrest reports as quickly as you like. But then you admit that the Department turns over such reports within four days of an arrest, which is well within any statutorily mandated period. Of course, some documents are not subject to production. Rightfully so. For example, it would be crazy to turn over a police investigative file on an unsolved crime. Doing so, might put a criminal on notice of an investigation. Likewise, the Public Records Act exempts certain private information, and custodians of such documents should preview and redact them before turning it over to third parties. This ensures that the City releases no private information to the public.
Birney, The City of Columbus sends a facsimile notice of every specially called or recess meeting of the Mayor and City Council. The City has never been obligated to do that. But the City has done this for years and I think it is the right thing to do. The City will continue to do this, even though we know The Dispatch is going to find something negative to report about.
It is unfortunate that The Dispatch cannot find anything positive to write about the Columbus City Government. But I suppose that reporting that Standard and Poor's Rating Service recently raised the City's bond rating from A to A+ does not sell newspapers. I wish that was the sort of news The Dispatch would put on the front page of the paper. I would also hope that The Mayor and City Council, as well as the City's CFO, COO and the City's Department Heads would get a "rose" on Sunday for keeping expenses down and continuing to add to the City's reserve fund. I don't figure you'll allow that; but, hopefully you will prove me wrong.
Robert E. Smith, Sr.