Legal Alert

Ballard Spahr Secures Largest Penalty in State History for Violation of Mississippi Public Records Act

by Emmy Parsons, Jacquelyn N. Schell, and Charles D. Tobin
August 8, 2021

Summary

The Mississippi Ethics Commission last week levied the largest fine against a public body in the state’s history in an action filed nearly two years ago by Ballard Spahr on behalf of Gray Media Group’s Jackson-licensed station WLBT-TV.

The Upshot

  • The Ethics Commission ordered the City of Jackson to pay more than $170,000 in legal fees.
  • The Commission condemned the City's responses to WLBT's Public Records Act requests for police communications as "woefully and appallingly late." In the most egregious example, the City waited nearly 600 days to produce phone and text logs to WLBT. Mississippi law requires a public body to provide records within seven business days.
  • The Commission also ordered the City to take several concrete steps to ensure transparency in the future.

The Bottom Line

In its ruling, the Ethics Commission stressed that complying with the Public Records Act “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."

Gray Media Group and WLBT were represented in the case by Emmy Parsons, Jacquelyn Schell, and Charles D. Tobin of Ballard Spahr’s Media & Entertainment Law Group.

The Mississippi Ethics Commission last week levied the largest fine against a public body in the State’s history in an action filed nearly two years ago by Ballard Spahr on behalf of Gray Media Group’s Jackson-licensed station WLBT-TV.

The Commission ordered the City of Jackson to pay more than $170,000 in legal fees incurred by Gray after it filed an ethics complaint against the City alleging repeated failures to timely produce complete responses to public records requests filed by WLBT under the Mississippi Public Records Act. The records WLBT sought included various reports and communications records for the Jackson Police Department.

In its Final Order, which detailed testimony from six days of hearings held between November 2020 and January 2021, the Commission noted that the City’s “responses were woefully and appallingly late,” and the City “offered no reasonable explanation for the delays.” The Commission found that “[i]ndifference and inaction on the part of the city are the sole causes for the expenses incurred” by Gray and that “fairness demands” that the City reimburse Gray for “the funds it never should have needed to expend.”

In addition to awarding Gray the full amount of attorneys’ fees Gray sought, the Commission also ordered that the City take various concrete actions that the Commission hopes will finally encourage the City to comply with its obligations under the law, noting that this Order “is the fifteenth time over nearly thirteen years that the Ethics Commission has found the City of Jackson violated the Public Records Act.” These additional actions include:

  1. Producing all remaining records to which WLBT is entitled within seven days;
  2. Designating a Public Records Officer (PRO) for the City and each of its 10 departments within 30 days;
  3. Ordering that each PRO undergoes at least two hours of annual training on the Public Records Act and at least one hour of training on the City’s records software;
  4. Ordering that the City generate a weekly report, to be made publicly available on the City’s website, showing all pending public records requests; and
  5. Ordering that the City pay into the General Fund of the State of Mississippi a civil penalty of $900, or $100 for each of the nine violations of law as determined by the Commission.

As the Commission stressed, complying with the Public Records Act “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. The Public Records Act enshrines the fundamental right of citizens in a democracy to be informed about the operations of government.”

Gray Media Group and WLBT were represented in the case by Emmy Parsons, Jacquelyn Schell and Charles D. Tobin of Ballard Spahr’s Media & Entertainment Law Group.

For more information, please see the print and broadcast reports produced by WLBT regarding this historic win.

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