The Internet, the World Wide Web, email and other technological advancements have made it easier than ever for the average citizen to keep track of the public's business. The rise in recent years of Web sites dedicated to shedding light (and criticism) on the records of state and local officials has been a boon to reporters and citizens alike.
But not to public officials.
Gov. Mike Foster, for example, derisively brands public-interest Web site operators "Internet kooks" because they dare to expose his inconsistencies as well as lawmakers' pro-gambling and pro-tax votes.
Unfortunately, the same technology that makes government records more accessible can also hide the public's business from public view.
That's the latest warning from the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR), a watchdog group based in Baton Rouge. In a report titled "Louisiana's Sunshine Laws: the Promise and Peril of New Technology," PAR notes that advancements in digital communication have increased the amount of public information and the speed with which it is disseminated, but new questions have emerged over what constitutes a public record.
Take, for example, emails to and from state lawmakers or members of the many state boards and commissions.
Are they public records?
Maybe, maybe not.
Louisiana law currently defines most government communications as public records, regardless of their form. The public records law generally includes electronic formats by defining public records as any public information "regardless of physical form or characteristics, including information contained in electronic data processing equipment."
That would seem to include emails, but, as PAR notes, "the broad language of the statute ... has resulted in confusion over what format constitutes a public record."
Two years ago, a bill to exclude emails (but not their attachments) from the public records law passed through a House committee. That bill ultimately failed, but the issue is likely to resurface.
PAR wants to make sure that when it does, lawmakers expressly include public officials' emails in the definition of public records. The group likewise suggests requiring the state Archives and the Office of Information Technology to immediately post guidelines on the management of electronic records and to update the records management handbook -- so that officials know they're breaking the law when they casually delete emails. PAR also wants to bar public bodies from using technological devices to circumvent the Open Meetings Law.
Those are but a few of the suggestions contained in the PAR report, which is available on-line at www.la-par.org. Other recommendations include clearer guidelines for state Web sites, privacy laws and videoconferencing.
Web site information, for example, should be included in the definition of public records, and public bodies should be barred from charging fees to access information on-line.
On the matter of privacy, PAR suggests requiring public bodies to review data collection policies and to allow only the collection of personal information necessary to conduct agency business. PAR also proposes allowing citizens to review and correct erroneous personal information -- conveniently and at no charge -- and exempting certain personal information (such as Social Security numbers) from the public records law.
Videoconferencing is a great tool in the private sector, but it poses a major threat to the Open Meetings Law. PAR recommends limiting public bodies' ability to meet through videoconferencing by requiring, among other things, that a majority of the members be located in the same spot. The law also should protect the public's right to attend, hear and speak at such meetings.
"Government efficiency has grown with the ease of using electronic information, but so has the potential for privacy invasion and public record destruction," says PAR president Jim Brandt.
If you agree, then use that technology to get in touch with your legislators (House and Senate) and tell them to adopt the PAR recommendations. Go to www.legis.state.la.us to get your lawmakers' email addresses and phone numbers ("Your Louisiana Legislators" at the bottom of the home page). Do it now, and contact them again after the Legislature convenes on March 31.
You'll be doing yourself and your fellow citizens a huge favor -- even if you rarely use technology to keep track of public records.
If nothing else, you'll be helping the Internet kooks to keep us all posted.