by Keith Burton - GCN Filed 1/17/06 Updated 1/20/06
In yet another setback for the troubled Harrison County Development Commission, the Mississippi Court of Appeals ruled against the commission over its efforts to conceal records in a case that goes back nearly five years.
The appeals court Tuesday affirmed a lower court ruling that the Harrison County Development Commission failed to comply with the state public records law in a case that involved Henry "Tut" Kinney, a Pass Christian resident that sought records from the commission and the pay records of its former director, Michael Olivier.
The appeals court also ordered the HCDC to pay Kinney's legal fees for both the previous case in 2004 and the HCDC's appeal to the appeals court. The courts have now twice ruled that the HCDC failed to comply with the state's pubic records law.
"For the record I hope that this litigation will stand as an example to other State entities that they can not hide public records without recrimination," Kinney told GCN. "I also hope it will encourage other citizens to pursue public records request knowing if they are successful they will be reimbursed their expenses."
Kinney, who is now a member of the HCDC, had locked horns with HCDC and then-director Michael Olivier (photo left) over access to records, and the matter eventually wound up in court. Kinney was appointed to the commission by Harrison County Supervisor Connie Rockco. Both had fought the agency for its lack of accountability and poor performance and had taken very heated criticism.
GCN reported on the agency's problems in its "Slippery Business" series, which is available for viewing online.
Olivier is currently Louisiana's top economic development official. He resigned his position two years ago in the midst of a firestorm about his work here. The lawsuit involving Kinney was initially filed against Kinney by the HCDC. Some news reports suggest it was Kinney that filed the complaint, but that was not the case. The HCDC's initial case was filed to keep Kinney from getting the records, among them was Olivier's salary and personnel file. Olivier's true salary was never publicly known as he was paid an additional amount from what was said to be consulting work.
It is uncertain at this point whether the HCDC will appeal the cast to the state supreme court. But it is unlikely as further litigation will only succeed in paying more fees for attorneys.
The HCDC is in the midst of a slow change. Several board members have recently resigned and others are at the end of their appointments. There is a new director and commission attorney, and supervisors believe the agency is going through some reform. Hurricane Katrina has also worked against the agency. The Harrison County Board of Supervisors recently froze HCDC's accounts as a Katrina cost-cutting move and ordered the agency to operate within a bare minimum budget. Supervisors also said no additional funding will be available for next year.
The HCDC operates the county's industrial parks and the Commerce Park in Biloxi.
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