GEORGE COUNTY, Miss. (WKRG) – A new complaint filed with the Mississippi Ethics Commission alleges leaders in the George County School District broke state law regarding public records.
The four-page complaint, filed January 12 by WKRG reporter and Report for America corps member Cory Johnson, outlined instances between September and November 2022 where district administrators charged up to $545 to produce copies of school board minutes and other records.
Johnson alleged that he received 150 pages of school board minutes, accident reports and legal service agreements by email from May to September at no cost from the district. After a story was published Sept. 26 regarding a state investigative audit that found staff-sanctioned cheating in the high school, the district began charging “unreasonable” fees to produce records, the complaint said.
Under the Mississippi Public Records Act, public bodies may “establish and collect fees reasonably calculated to reimburse it for, and in no case to exceed, the actual cost of searching, reviewing and/or duplicating and, if applicable, mailing copies of public records”.
An attached exhibit to the complaint shows school board attorney Cherie Rivera Wade sent a quote on October 5 to produce minutes of nine board meetings. The quote, for $545, was for 700 pages of documents, two hours of research at $50-per-hour and $250 for an hour of legal review.
In attached emails, Johnson asked Wade, records custodian Susan Moore and superintendent Wade Whitney to explain how the fees were determined, outlining that there would be no privileged information in the minutes that would require legal review, the research fee was nearly double Moore’s hourly salary and he did not require physical, printed copies.
The complaint said Wade declined to revise the quote but Moore allowed Johnson to inspect the minutes, already printed and kept in a binder, in the central office on October 13. Johnson said the minutes took up fewer than 100 pages total.
The complaint also said the district has not been uniform in charging for records. It allegedly sent 18 pages of school board documents to an unrelated citizen on Nov. 16 with no request form filed or charges issued. Wade told the commission it happened when a staff member unauthorized to fulfill the request sent the records while Moore was out of the office.
“The District has not received any other requests for public records since August of 2022. One instance, which occurred during extraordinary circumstances, is not sufficient to demonstrate that the fees are unreasonable or that the actions of the District were retaliatory in nature,” Wade wrote.
An additional exhibit was filed by Johnson on May 17, showing a public records request made to the district on Sept. 30 by an attorney with a lawsuit against GCSD in federal court. Wade appears to have sent the records, 92 pages of redacted invoices, at no cost.
“There is no possible evidence the district could provide to prove lack of intent or oversight caused it to make the false statement to the commission. The only reasonable conclusion is the statement was, at best, wreckless, and intentionally deceiving at worst,” Johnson wrote in a memo attached to the exhibit.
In all, the complaint outlines four different rates the district attempted to charge Johnson to fulfill various requests between September and October, mostly for employment contracts of district administrators named in the state audit and subsequent disciplinary hearing:
- $100-per-hour research fee, and $0.25-per-page copies
- $50-per-hour research fee, and $0.25-per-page copies
- $25.42-per-hour research fee, and $0.30-per-page copies
- $25.25-per-hour research fee, and $0.30-per-page copies
Moore’s salary is $24.20-per-hour, lower than all of the hourly rates charged, Johnson said.
The complaint said the staff and copy fees charged were not in accordance with the school board’s public records policy at the time, or state law. It cited a 2021 opinion issued by the ethics commission saying public bodies must prove the actual cost of copying if it is over $0.15-per-page.
The district’s policies when the initial record requests were submitted in September outlined a $125-per-hour fee for records needing legal review. Wade bills the district, and charged Johnson, $250-per-hour. Dennis DeBar served as the board’s attorney for one meeting in July at a rate of $200-per-hour. Previous board attorney April McDonald appears to have charged $125-per-hour, based on the fee schedule.
Johnson also outlined an alleged incident where Wade sent employment contracts for one school administrator that were not redacted and included the employee’s social security number.
School board members approved revisions to the public records policy on October 4, which outlines a $50-per-hour research fee. It is in violation of state law to recoup actual costs incurred (Moore’s $24.20-per-hour rate), the complaint argued.
“The district has proven it cannot be trusted to regulate itself when complying with state law regarding public records. The complainant is extremely concerned future requests by himself and other members of the public will not be legally fulfilled. The Mississippi Public Records Act gives power to the public to hold government bodies accountable and increase transparency in governance by taxpayer-funded institutions. The actions of the district completely rebuke the letter and spirit of the law and the residents of George County are illegally harmed because of it,” the complaint said.
In its response, the district, represented by Wade, says:
“The District strenuously denies the allegations made by Complainant. There is simply no evidence that it has done anything other than respond to the requests made by Complainant and provide an estimate of fees as authorized by law prior to the disclosure of the records.”
The response says Moore often engaged with other staff to fulfill the requests and quoted appropriate fees as such, often charging discounted amounts to Johnson’s benefit.
Wade wrote that there were errors made in some quotes given to Johnson to fulfill the public records requests, but they were corrected. The district also included policies for other public bodies in the state to argue that GCSD’s fees are similar.
In the complaint, Johnson said he opted to never pay the district to fulfill the requests since he believed the costs were unreasonable and illegal, even when revised.
The district said “Countless hours have been expended to research, locate, and calculate fees for the requests made by Complainant, almost all of which were subsequently abandoned.”
In response, Johnson wrote to the commission that: “the District’s own policy protects it from such. Records need not be actually retrieved to provide a cost estimate. If it decided to search for and retrieve the records without exercising its right to request a deposit or before fees were paid in full, that is their own fault.”
The Mississippi Ethics Commission (MEC) is an eight-member board tasked with, in part, enforcing the public records and open meetings rules outlined in the state constitution.
Anyone can file a complaint when they believe a public body has violated either law. The commission receives an average of 118 complaints per year. Complaints are typically either mediated between the complaint filer and the public body to come to a resolution or go through a hearing process. After the hearing, commission staff may recommend the board dismiss the complaint or order the public body to come into compliance.
A 2006 state court ruling cited in Johnson’s complaint says charging excessive fees as a “a willful and knowing denial of access to public records” could result in a civil penalty for public officials, although fines are rare.
MEC staff did not give an estimate to when the complaint could be brought before the commission. The latest order of compliance, approved in the commission’s May meeting, stemmed from a complaint filed in June 2022.
The public records complaint comes as the school district is still working to clear state violations that have it on a Probation accreditation status. A federal lawsuit against the district by a former superintendent is also set to go to trial in November.
Memo and exhibit filed May 17: