Lee County Administrator Sean Thompson told the Daily Journal he thinks the public should have limited access to documents related to how and why county government leaders decide policies, even if the records don’t involve sensitive information. He suggested an option is for officials to limit communication about county business to conversations and phone calls.
“I’m not trying to do anything underhanded, I just try to keep public records to a minimum,” Thompson said.
State law requires local governments to retain and archive public documents for periods of time, ranging from just a few years to forever, depending on their importance. Many records, such as audits, budgets, contracts, property deeds and documents approved during meetings are routinely maintained and archived by city, chancery and circuit clerks and other record-keepers. However, little oversight and accountability exists for maintaining and organizing other documents requiring compliance with the same standards.
Destroying public records can be much more subtle than shredding documents. It can happen as easily as pressing delete on a keyboard or cellphone.
Tim Barnard, director of the local government records office at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said he doesn’t know a single government among the state’s nearly 300 municipalities and 82 counties in full compliance with the law.
“Some are better than others,” he said.
Government officials not paying attention to Mississippi records laws should seriously reconsider, said Alan Shark, executive director and CEO of Public Technology Institute, a Virginia-based national nonprofit organization focused on technology issues that impact city and county governments.
Beyond open record laws, legal disputes often include electronic discovery, a federal rule since 2006, which allows judges to issue subpoenas for all digital and electronic records related to lawsuits. He said this additional legal aspect makes electronic records management systems essential to include records like emails, text messages and even communication on social media.
Beyond legal requirements, Shark said when governments don’t maintain and archive records, it can encourage an environment of public mistrust.