Recently, an Alabama newspaper editorialized that, “Mississippi can and should do better than rank last among U.S. states for putting government information on line.” While the newspaper is absolutely correct, it is sad that this statement of truth must come from an out-of-state publication and not be championed by a newspaper or member of the media inside the State of Mississippi.
As important as it is for all states to make government information available to the public, it is equally important for the public to realize that should they support putting all government information on line, they will soon discover that their previous problems with accessing such government information will seem like it was child’s play compared with the blockades erected by the electronic data-keepers in other states.
The suggestion that Mississippi copy what other states have don in terms of putting public documents on line, plays right into the hands of those who would further deny the public access to the information for which they have a right. The recent charging of an outrageous fee by the Biloxi school system for a report requested by a citizen, while all the time the report was available for free to school board members is only a preview of endless abuses of those who set up these “public information on line” systems.
Granted, citizens will not longer hear complaining and experience delays to get requested information, as well as attempts to over-charge for copies, instead they will hear public servants say that they no longer have these documents, they are “in the process” of being put on line at some point in time and are, therefore, unavailable. When the on line preparation in finally done, there will be a sizable fee charged for downloading the information. A fee that is not covered by the State’s Public Records Acts.
Suddenly, politicians, appointed officials and public employees would be able to blame the computer and some software company from out-of-state for public information that is now inaccessible, just like they do in the other states the Alabama newspaper cites as examples of who to pattern ourselves after.
Those interested in open records might be well advised to look carefully into the on line opportunities, since those opportunities are actually available to those who would keep public information private.