Not-So-Public Records

Louisiana government is supposed to work in the sunshine, but a closer look suggests it's partly cloudy.



There are always a dozen or more bills filed in every regular session of the Legislature that seek to chip away at that distinction. It is widely known as "sunshine," that willingness by government to open up its books and meetings and operations to the general public. In Louisiana, as far as public-records laws go, the weather is sunny with threatening clouds overhead. At least that's how the Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida grades the state: "Somewhat open."

The project relies on a quirky sunshine index that smacks of the Weather Channel, with a bright sunshine on one end of the spectrum (completely open) and a dark sky on the other (completely closed). Louisiana falls largely in the middle in most categories, although a few -- children's records for medical examiners, certain computer records, gubernatorial documents -- are second-to-last on the index, dubbed as "nearly dark."

Yet overall, Louisiana has some of the best sunshine laws in the nation. In particular, access to the Legislature is well above average, even though the constitutional provision calling for such openness does not directly identify the body by name. Availability of election records pulled from state voting machines is another area that scored high on the index.

Still, there are always a dozen or more bills filed in every regular session of the Legislature that seek to chip away at that distinction. Barry Erwin, president of the Council for A Better Louisiana, a nonprofit that monitors the activities of state government, says that persistence may be more dangerous than the actual intent of the bills.

"It is very disconcerting," Erwin says. "It seems there is always an effort to create an exemption or find a loophole. Some years are worst than others and you never know what's going to come up. They just keep coming back again and again. The good news, though, is that most of these bad bills usually get killed."

That is certainly true, sometimes before a hearing is even held. Rep. William Daniel, a Baton Rouge Republican, was pushing legislation that would have excluded law-enforcement personnel records from public view, including disciplinary actions, but he pulled it from consideration in the face of opposition from the Louisiana Press Association and others.

"I'm not going anywhere with that bill," Daniel confirmed, making this the second time in so many years he has introduced and deflated the concept personally.

As one door closes, however, another opens. Rep. Heulette "Clo" Fontenot, a Livingston Parish Republican, has a bill that would actually expunge certain actions carried out by internal investigations. More specifically, if an officer is accused of a wrongdoing, then later found innocent, the charge could be removed from the officer's jacket.

"But if the accusations are true, they stay in the record," Fontenot says.

Not only would the information be erased from documents available to the public for viewing, it would also be shielded from superiors and future employers.

On the state level, the Department of Insurance wants to close off certain public records connected to companies that do business with the Louisiana Casualty and Surety Rating Commission. The measure, by Rep. Karen Carter, a New Orleans Democrat, identifies "biographical information" as being exempt from sunshine laws, but offers no definition as to what that might be.

Additionally, the Department of Transportation and Development has a set of bills filed for the session that would prohibit preconstruction estimates from being viewed by the public until all bids on the project are received.

Some of these concepts might not look like much on the surface, but Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says they set a dangerous precedent if approved and applied the wrong way.

"It all depends on the legislative intent, but any time an exception is being made to government operating in the open, that should immediately raise questions," Cook says. "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and it pays to be vigilant any time the Legislature is in session."

Of course, the flipside of the issue involves those bills that seek to further open up government to public inspection, rather than close it off. But sometimes those don't even gain traction. For instance, a bill that would have made public certain documents in the governor's office -- just like the way all other state agencies are treated -- met a quiet defeat earlier this month.

Terry Ryder, executive counsel to Gov. Kathleen Blanco, rattled off a number of reasons that helped lawmakers torpedo the proposal. Information shared in the executive branch is sensitive, he told them, and answering public requests of that nature would be too time-consuming for the staff. But most of all, the governor's ability to receive information freely would be obstructed.

Rep. Mert Smiley, a Republican from Port Vincent, notes an irony in the administration's opposition. He recalls how Blanco was elected as a reformer and how she has made ethics a central platform in nearly every session.

"I couldn't think of any way better to show transparency than this," Smiley says, referring to the defeated legislation.

Another version of the bill has been filed by Rep. Peppi Bruneau, a New Orleans Republican, which would allow Blanco's personal records to remain under lock and key, but open up all other sections of her office.

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