The city of Jackson, Mississippi, was ordered to pay more than $170,000 in legal fees to local broadcaster WLBT’s parent company, Gray Television, on Aug. 6, 2021, after it was determined that the city violated the state’s public records law.
WLBT reported that in 2019 the station’s chief investigative reporter, C.J. LeMaster, sent the Jackson Police Department seven requests for public records including emails, memos and crime statistics; the department never produced documents for five of the requests and waited nearly 600 days to produce portions of another request. Mississippi’s Public Records Act requires public bodies to provide records within seven days of a request being filed.
The station filed an ethics complaint in October 2019 and when the city did not produce any additional records for 10 months, a hearing was held in November 2020. Emmy Parsons, an attorney representing WLBT, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that LeMaster testified during the hearings that communications with the city were inconsistent and there appeared to be problems with the system used to handle records requests.
On Aug. 6, 2021, the Mississippi Ethics Commission unanimously approved a final order against the city, requiring that it pay $170,397.50 to reimburse the station’s legal fees and a civil penalty of $900, $100 for each violation, in accordance with the state’s Public Records Act. The order also mandated that Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba designate public records officers for the city and its departments and undertake other measures to prevent further violations.
“Confidence must be based upon trust which can only come from transparency. JPD and the rest of city government must be open and honest with the people it serves,” wrote Tom Hood, the ethics commission’s executive director, in the order. “The city’s officials and employees, especially those in JPD, need to learn that the Public Records Act is not a nuisance. Rather, it is a fundamental obligation of municipal government just like police protection, fire protection, water and sewer services. Without transparency in government there can be no confidence among the governed, and without the support of the community, those in government cannot succeed.”
Parsons told the Tracker, “WLBT station leadership and C.J. [LeMaster] were clear that this was a fight that was not only worth having but was necessary to have, and they were really committed to it throughout.”
“The hope at the end of the day with all of this is not just that WLBT receives the last remaining records that it is entitled to with regards to these seven requests, but that it serves as a wake-up call to the city that it is falling down on its job to provide records responses in compliance with the law and it needs to take that obligation seriously and prioritize that obligation,” Parsons said.
The city of Jackson did not respond to an emailed request for comment.