By EMILY LE COZ
Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
TUPELO, Miss. (AP) – Miss-issippi ranks last once again.
A recent national survey found that while many states put basic public records on the Internet, Mississippi still requires people to request most documents by mail or in person, and sometimes the state requires people to pay for the records.
It’s a horse-and-buggy system in a world where people elsewhere fly first-class.
People in many states can obtain a host of information with a click of the mouse: death certificates, disciplinary actions against attorneys, child care center inspection reports and gas pump overcharges, for example.
Not so in Mississippi. The state has online data from only four of 20 categories examined by the Sunshine Week 2009 Survey of State Government Information Online. The study, released today, was developed by Sunshine Week, the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Freedom of Information Committee, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists’ FOI Committee.
“Obviously, the more access the public has to records the better informed it will be, and making records available online is a way to give the people easy access in this day of technology,” said Leonard D. Van Slyke Jr., a Jackson attorney who represents media groups and deals with public-records law.
The survey found that only Texas provides online data in all the categories surveyed, with New Jersey coming in a close second.
Mississippi ranked last. It posted only state Department of Transportation contracts and projects, business name registrations, statewide school test scores, and political campaign contributions and expenses. Mississippi’s online data about nursing homes and hospitals had no inspection reports and therefore didn’t meet survey criteria.
“This study shows that, while a lot of government information is available online, many states lag in providing important information that people care about,” David Cuillier, Freedom of Information Committee chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists, said in a news release. “People should be able to find inspection records for their schools online. And the government shouldn’t be charging people for death certificates and other records.”
But the Mississippi agencies responsible for these records aren’t solely to blame in the lag of posting information online. Other culprits include a shortage of funding for developing and maintaining the Web sites; a shortage of broadband Internet access in this mostly rural state and lack of interest by residents who opt not to go online.
Mississippi has the nation’s lowest percentage of households with Internet access at 46 percent, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. And it has the second-lowest percentage of households with high-speed access at 33 percent.
With so few people online, government agencies have little incentive to post records in cyberspace, said Marty Wiseman, executive director of Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government.
“It’s not just quality and type of information,” Wiseman said, “but if you put it online, will the people who need it most have access to it?”
Wiseman said it’s a common problem for rural states nationwide, because it’s difficult to provide quality Internet access to people outside urban areas, which is where most Mississippians live. So do residents in other bottom-ranking states in the survey: Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and Wyoming.
One project is trying to solve the issue, at least in north Mississippi. A four-year-old effort called MEGAPOP is installing and expanding fiber networks necessary for high-speed Internet. But it’s a work in progress and doesn’t cover the entire state.
In the meantime, some state agencies aren’t waiting idly for residents to get online. The state Department of Education has posted a wealth of public records on its Web site. So has the Office of the Secretary of State.
“These documents run the gamut from election certifications to administrative policies and procedures to business corporation and charities information most of which is a mix of scanned documents, databases and agency publications,” said Pamela Weaver, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.
Weaver said Hosemann continues to add to the Web site. He put all 16th-Section public land leases online and is scanning executive orders from the current and former governors to post online, too. Viewing the orders now requires residents to visit the Jackson office and flip through massive binders.
But providing such access takes money and manpower. The office employs a technology staff that updates and writes programs for the Web site, which was created under then-Secretary of State Eric Clark in 1994 and has been revamped several times. Other employees also have access to put records online from their various divisions. Not including salaries, it costs about $33,000 annually to maintain and protect the Secretary of State’s Web site, Weaver said.
That’s a financial luxury other agencies don’t have.
“We’re self-funded agency,” said Dr. H. Vann Craig, a physician who serves as executive director Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure. “All our money comes from licensees, with no (tax) money appropriated from the Legislature. We have to be careful with our dollars.”
The board places some information on its Web site, but other information is available only upon written request and for a $25 fee. Craig said he’d like to get more public records online, but the agency only has four technology staffers instead of its usual five. He said it’s a struggle for the staff to keep up.
“We’ve got some good people here who do good work and we get as much online as possible,” Craig said. “It’s all about the bottom line.”
State Rep. David Norquist, D-Cleveland, said he favors transparent government and this year introduced a bill that would’ve banned public agencies from charging excessive fees charged for public records. The bill failed.
Norquist said agencies must be realistic when deciding what to post online. There is no reason, he said, to spend thousands of dollars putting information in cyberspace when only a few people will ever want it.
Start slowly with the records of greatest public interest, Norquist said, and then build from there. It might take years, but eventually Mississippi will get there, he said.
Wiseman agreed, but he said it won’t happen until people demand it.
“By and large, what the government does, the vast majority of it, should be out there,” Wiseman said. “In the past that meant going to the courthouse and digging through records. Now with the computer the question is, why don’t you just open to the door to everybody? I think the public has a right to expect that and demand it, and the more widespread computer usage from the home becomes, the more the demand is going to be.”
(Editor’s Note: Newspapers across the state have partnered with The Associated Press and Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information to present an in-depth look at public meetings and open records laws in the Magnolia State. The result is a comprehensive series of reports that will launch this week
Mississippi’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws were designed to protect citizens’ access to the workings of government, but are rife with exemptions that perpetuate a culture of secrecy. Private citizens, organizations and media outlets have long pushed for more open government, but the Legislature has largely ignored these appeals.)