MISSISSIPPI–The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks must provide a list of employee names and the accumulated comp time they are entitled to in response to an open records request, the Supreme Court ruled in mid-August. The court said that the Mississippi Public Records Act requires disclosure of that information and that it would not be protected by which would not be covered by an exemption in the law for “certain” personnel records.
In Mississippi, exemptions to the open records law must be narrowly construed, the court said. Calling the intent of the state’s legislature “manifestly clear,” the court ruled unanimously that “Public records which do not fall into a carefully defined exception provided by law are entirely open to access by the general public.”
In 1996 Rex Harvey, an attorney for the Mississippi Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association asked the department for an alphabetized list of all employees setting out their accumulated comp time. The Department began providing the information and gave Harvey a computer-generated list for 391 employees.
However, it did not provide information on the remaining employees and refused a second request for that information, saying that it had determined that the information was confidential under an exemption in the act for personnel records. The department would only release the records with written consent of an individual employee, it said.
The association sued in February 1997 in chancery court in Jackson and the court provided Harvey with the amounts of comp time available, but not the names of employees entitled to it.
The court ruled in July 1997 that the records had to be provided and that the department must pay a statutory fine of $100 for its failure to comply with the act and its “bad faith actions” in not complying. After additional motions the court entered a similar final judgment in October 1997 and awarded $11,000 in attorneys fees to Harvey.
On appeal the department argued that the records were similar to other records that were protected by the personnel records exemption. A state attorney general opinion found that home addresses and telephone numbers, documents reflecting pension and medical benefits, and state tax returns were confidential under the exemption, the department argued.
But the high court said that the attorney general’s opinion turned on an exemption protecting tax records, not personnel records and pointed to other attorney general opinions requiring release of information about employees. It also affirmed the penalty and attorneys fees.
One judge dissented from the court’s award of fees, saying that although the department’s decision to withhold the records was wrong, it was not made in bad faith.
(Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks v. Mississippi Wildlife Enforcement Officers’ Association; Counsel: Rex Harvey, Jackson)