July 11, 2018 10:50:16 AM
Zack Plair - [email protected]
The Dispatch has submitted a public records complaint to the Mississippi Ethics Commission against the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau alleging the CVB failed to provide requested payroll documents and excessively charged the newspaper for what was provided.
The newspaper mailed the complaint to the commission's Jackson headquarters on Tuesday. It specifically asks for CVB to provide more documents and refund any amount the Ethics Commission deems it overcharged the newspaper.
On May 31, a reporter for The Dispatch hand-delivered a letter to CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter requesting certain payroll records, including names and salaries of employees, as well as whether they are full- or part-time. The letter also requested records that would indicate any CVB staffing cuts as of May 31, along with how much money those cuts would save the organization annually.
Since almost all of CVB's funding comes from public tax dollars, the organization's records are subject to disclosure under the Mississippi Public Records Act. CVB's board members are appointed either by the Columbus City Council or Lowndes County Board of Supervisors.
In response to The Dispatch's letter, however, CVB created a one-page summary of the information and did not provide the supporting payroll documents the newspaper requested. CVB also charged The Dispatch $308.30 for access to the one-page summary.
"This complaint filed with the Ethics Commission is a statement that exorbitant fees for basic public information is not acceptable," said Peter Imes, publisher for The Dispatch. "Public records should be just that: public."
Carpenter, speaking to The Dispatch after being made aware of the complaint, said she was acting under the advice of CVB attorney Chris Hemphill and the organization's certified public accountant, Tom Buckley, when responding to the request.
"We have done what we believe to be needful and ethical," Carpenter said. "I don't know if we can give payroll documents because it has private information on them, like (employees') Social Security numbers."
The law provides certain private information -- such as public employees' Social Security numbers, home addresses, personal telephone numbers, for example -- can be redacted from a public document being requested, something The Dispatch noted in its written request. However, the unredacted portions of the document are typically still subject to public disclosure.
Public entities also have the right to charge reasonable fees for compiling and copying records in response to a public records request. By law, they can also charge the requester for an employee's time working on filling the request -- as long as it's the hourly rate for the lowest paid person qualified to complete the task.
After receiving The Dispatch's request, CVB initially attempted to charge the newspaper $488.30, including fees for a CPA ($175.80), financial assistant ($100), paraprofessional ($32.50) and an attorney ($180).
The Dispatch pushed back against the initial charge. In response, Carpenter informed the newspaper Hemphill had waived his attorney fee.
Last week, The Dispatch again contacted Carpenter by email and asked what role the CPA, financial assistant and paraprofessional played in filling the request. In that email, the newspaper again asserted it was not asking CVB to create a new document but to provide records it should already have readily available.
Carpenter, in a return email, replied:
"... The information you requested is not always kept ready to deliver. The paraprofessional ran reports she was asked to run. Since it is sensitive information, which all employees are not privy to, the accountant determined what reports should be run, what information should be presented and reviewed and checked all reports including final reports. The financial assistant compiled the information."
On Monday, The Dispatch paid the remaining $308.30 and received the one-page summary.
CVB responded to the newspaper's request within the time frame allowed by law.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.