When it comes to government transparency and accountability, open records laws provide a great check and balance for the public and not just through the media.
That proved true once again as it played out recently in Mississippi, when a simple records request from an attorney representing a former University of Mississippi football coach led to the resignation of the Ole Miss coach, Hugh Freeze.
According to Yahoo Sports and other reports, the former coach, Houston Nutt, felt disparaged when Freeze and leaders at the taxpayer-supported university deflected NCAA accusations of program misdeeds to the prior coach and administration. According to the reports, the most serious of the violations — if proven true — would have occurred during Freeze's tenure, and Nutt wanted that publicly acknowledged. When the university balked, he sued.
Nutt's attorney, Tom Mars, in conjunction with a defamation lawsuit against the university, filed a records request seeking telephone logs of Freeze and the athletic director to try to show that Nutt had been thrown under the bus. In examining the records, a one-minute call from Freeze's state-issued phone turned out to be to an escort service. Freeze initially claimed it was a "misdial," but university officials, alerted by the attorney's findings, investigated further and found what they said was a "pattern."
Up to that point, the media wasn't involved in seeking the records. Freeze, who is married and religious, immediately resigned and headlines ensued.
Had Freeze been a private citizen rather than a high-ranking state employee, calling an escort service would have been a private moral matter and the accountability would have been between he and his conscience. But as a public figure in a position of high visibility and trust — especially with parents, recruits and players — his phone records are public and he's subject to the same accountability as those in public office.
That level of accountability is important in all states, not just Mississippi.
In Oregon, legislators recently took strides to improve records access, but there's still room for reform.
Among legislatively approved changes are the implementation of specific deadlines for responses to records requests and the delivery of requested information that isn't covered by numerous legal exemptions. The goal of the change is to prevent bureaucratic officials from purposely stonewalling records requests.
The Attorney General's Office will also compile a full list of the state's more than 500 exemptions and make the list publicly available, while a "sunshine" committee within the Department of Justice will work with lawmakers and others to review the exemptions for potential reform.
Legislators also approved the creation of a post for an appointed public records advocate who will mediate records disputes. The advocate, appointed by the governor, will also chair a newly created Public Records Advisory Council and will engage in training public officials on records disclosure.
The changes here are meaningful, and as the Mississippi instance illustrates, the disclosure there wouldn't have come to light without a records request and the clout of the law behind it. Taxpayers benefit from laws that create that transparency and accountability.
— The Daily Astorian