Public Information and Your Right to Know

By Christopher Solop

Did you ever want to know exactly what public information is available to you and how to get it?  The fact is, there is a plethora of information that you can access by making a simple request under the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983, Miss. Code Ann. §§25-65-1, et seq. (“the Act”).  The Act is intended to provide the public, you and me, with access to information related to the conduct of governmental business and services.  It expressly states that “providing access to public records is a duty of each public body”.  What is a “public record”?  The Act defines it broadly to include virtually all documents generated by a public body.  This means you can have access for inspection and reproduction of documents regarding the “performance of any business, transaction, work, duty or function of any public body, or to be required to be maintained by any public body”.  This includes not just “official documents” but written recommendations, comments and information, such as e-mail correspondence between public officials associated with resolving issues before the respective public body.

There are, however, certain restrictions that may limit access to public records that contain trade secrets, confidential and/or financial information of a proprietary nature.  The public agency is required to provide written notice to a person whose information appears in a document requested under the Act that a request has been made for its production so that an objection to the release of any protected information can be made.  . The Act outlines the required time for notification and the procedure for securing a protective order challenging the release of those documents. There are also other documents identified in the Act that are exempt from public disclosure, such as specific law enforcement documents.

Why would you want to access public information?  Perhaps you want to see the sealed competitive proposals for a project that you competed for but did not win.   Maybe you want to look at bids that have been submitted on a project of a similar nature.  Or, perhaps you simply want to know how much a public body is paying for legal services or the salaries of certain public employees.  Regardless of the reason, the Act provides a mechanism for securing information from the public domain.  

The Act further mandates production of the requested documents no later than seven (7) working days after receipt of the request.  In the event this deadline cannot be met, the Act requires a written explanation for not complying with this deadline:

“If a public body is unable to produce a public record by the seventh working day after the request is made, the public body must provide a written explanation to the person making the request stating that the record requested will be produced and specifying with particularity why the records cannot be produced within the seven-day period…”

Of course, there is a cost to be paid for securing this information.  The Act allows each public body to “establish and collect fees reasonably calculated to reimburse it” for providing the requested documents.  However, where a person is wrongfully denied records not exempt from production or is charged an unreasonable fee for production, the Act provides for potential personal liability and payment of “all reasonable expenses incurred by such person bringing the proceeding” to compel production.

One final word of advice:  remember that records you provide to a public body can also become part of the public domain and subject to release under the Act.