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Secrecy impedes progress for cottage residents

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency wants to charge residents of Mississippi cottages hundreds of dollars for copies of their MEMA case files, agency representatives acknowledged at a Monday night meeting with about 50 residents in Waveland.

MEMA also has failed to make available rules the agency follows to determine the cost of cottages, whether residents are eligible to buy them and requirements for assistance with elevating cottages in flood zones.

The Mississippi Center for Justice had to file a public records request to get a copy of the rules. I am trying to find out how much they paid for the copies. MCJ just got the records last week.

Until then, cottage residents had no idea what MEMA's rules said. Lack of communication has been one of the biggest problems in sorting out cottage issues, which is a disservice to cottage residents, taxpayers and MEMA employees trying to enforce the rules.

And then there are the cottage case files.

One resident. Lynette Green, said she had tried to get a copy of her case file to fight court eviction from her cottage. MEMA told her the file would cost $300 to $400. Deputy program director James McDaniel acknowledged at the meeting that the agency charges 10 cents a page for scanned copies and 25 cents for paper copies. But the costs don't stop there. MEMA's policy is to charge $10 an hour for clerical work to assemble and copy files, and $40 an hour for an attorney to review them.

Mississippi Public Records law says state and local agencies can charge only "actual cost" for records. MEMA's internal policy sets that agenciy's charges based on the law. Many public entities, including some of our local governments, charge only for the cost of paper.

The Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information has tried without success to get the state Legislature to further define "actual cost" so agencies do not overcharge for records. I should disclose that I am currently president of MCFOI.

Some agencies, including the governor's office, have used prohibitive charges as a way to discourage taxpaying citizens from requesting or receiving public records.

While MEMA's cost structure appears to fall within what the law allows, nothing prevents the agency from waiving the legal and clerical fees for these cottage residents, many of whom are disabled and/or elderly and live on fixed incomes.

After all, taxpayers already are picking up the salaries of clerical help and staff attorneys. This is not about whether residents still in cottages should be allowed to buy and keep them. Each case is different, as I discovered at the meeting. Some residents have long been told they could keep the cottages, put down earnest money and spent thousands preparing property for these modular homes only to be told that they no longer qualify because of changes in elevation requirements or other conditions.

I am saying residents should have access to their records, and to all public records in MEMA's possession. Prohibitive costs are denying them this right.