"Transparency breeds trust": Hattiesburg works on updating public records policy

"Transparency breeds trust": Hattiesburg works on updating public records policy
Source: WDAM

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The City of Hattiesburg is working on updating it's public records policies and procedures to make documents more accessible to citizens.

"Transparency breeds trust," said Dr. Joe Paul, the city's new Customer Service Coordinator.  "The goal of the Mayor and now all of us, is to be the most transparent, rapidly responsive city in our state, if not our region."

Dr. Paul said one of the first tasks given to him from Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker was to take a look at the city's current ordinance, outlining the policies, procedures and personnel involved in filling requests.

"The reason it is so important is, our work is the public's work and these records belong to the taxpayers of Hattiesburg," said Dr. Paul.  "Once our citizens have high trust in their government, we can make great things happen."

Nearly all city records are available to citizens through request.  Dr. Paul said the most common request are for things like land and property records or police incident reports.

The City of Hattiesburg is currently operating under the city's ordinance from 1990 in regards to request.  In a work session Monday with city council members, Dr. Paul presented copies of the new ordinance he hoped to propose.

The biggest change to the proposal would be the cost for request.  Dr. Paul said "low cost requests," possibly something less than ten pages of copies, would be free.  For larger requests, it would just be for the actual cost of a copy, which right now is around 15 cents.

"These public records are theirs and the more informed they are as citizens, the more they can help move Hattiesburg forward," said Dr. Paul.

Dr. Paul said he also met with Jackson attorney Leonard Van Slyke, an expert on the state's public records and open meeting laws, and Tom Hood, executive director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, to put together the new ordinance.

In Mississippi, the Public Records Act ensures public access to public records in the possession of governmental entities in the state. The Ethics Commission has authority to take complaints, issue subpoenas, hold hearings and issue orders involving alleged violations of the Public Records Act.

Dr. Paul said the change to the policy is just the first step, which will lead to a change in process and then training for personnel.  The ordinance would also call for the Mayor to appoint a Public Records Officer in charge of the process.

Dr. Paul expects the proposal to go before the city council next month.