You would think that a standing legislative committee whose members collectively have logged centuries of public service would know better than to violate the state's Open Meetings Law right in front of the press. Then again, you'd expect the press to know better than to let it happen without comment.
The violation occurred last Thursday at a public meeting of the Legislative Audit Advisory Council, a statutorily created, standing legislative committee. The council oversees the office of the legislative auditor, which itself is one of the most important agencies in state government. It's the closest thing to an official state watchdog.
Maybe that's why lawmakers operated in secret. Here's the background:
Former Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle resigned his post in January to run for governor. The council is now charged with winnowing down the field of applicants for Kyle's old job. At last week's meeting, the council narrowed the field to two candidates -- via secret ballot.
Worse yet, they did it right in front of the cameras and newspaper reporters. And not one reporter raised a stink about it.
Thankfully, veteran watchdog C. B. Forgotston caught it immediately and emailed newsrooms all over the state. Forgotston is unsparing in his criticism of public officials and the press, and for good reason on this one. Why was everybody asleep when this went down?
Meanwhile, a number of lawmakers see the vacancy in the auditor's office as a chance to clip Kyle's wings -- after he no longer holds the job. For years Kyle made a habit of stepping on people's toes with his audits and his tactics. His audits bluntly exposed and criticized public waste and corruption. Among other things, he helped put former Elections Commissioner Jerry Fowler in prison for bribery and kickbacks. He likewise uncovered hundreds of other examples of public waste.
Kyle himself strikes some people as high-handed, even arrogant.
Imagine that -- a Louisiana lawmaker being offended by arrogance.
Now that Kyle's gone, some lawmakers are hoping to trim the sails of the office itself, to rein in its authority and scope. In short, they want to make sure they don't get another Dan Kyle in the job. There's only one reason for that, and it ain't a pretty one. So, as the Audit Advisory Council (which directly oversees the auditor and his staff) meets to try to select Kyle's replacement, it's imperative that its business -- all of it -- be conducted in full public view.
I'm not breaking new ground here. The Louisiana Open Meetings Law is very specific on this point. Louisiana Revised Statute 42:5 states very plainly in its heading, "Meetings of public bodies to be open to the public." Section B of the law requires that "[e]ach public body shall be prohibited from utilizing any manner of proxy voting procedure, secret balloting, or any other means to circumvent the intent" of the Open Meetings Law. If that's not plain enough, Section C states, "All votes made by members of a public body shall be viva voce and shall be recorded in the minutes, journal, or other official, written proceedings of the body, which shall be a public document."
Lawmakers, like other public bodies, can go into executive session for specific reasons cited in the law -- but no action can be taken in any executive sessions. They are for discussion only, typically for litigation and other sensitive purposes when secrecy is actually in the best interest of the public.
But here, lawmakers opted to vote in secret right in front of the world, on slips of paper that were not recorded.
Moreover, one of the members of the council -- state Senate President John Hainkel -- is running for governor as a reformer. Another, state Sen. Willie Mount of Lake Charles, is considering a run for statewide office. Is secrecy part of their platforms?
To be fair, let's identify all the other members of the council:
House Speaker Charles DeWitt of Lecompte, Reps. Rick Farrar of Pineville, Ed Murray of New Orleans, Vic Stelly of Lake Charles, Taylor Townsend of Natchitoches, and Warren Triche of Thibodaux; Sens. Robert Barham of Rayville, Lynn Dean of Chalmette, Jon Johnson of New Orleans, and Tom Schedler of Slidell.
They all should know better. So should the press who covered the meeting. We all share in the blame.