by Marion Marks
The best laid plans of the Shreve Memorial Library went astray for reasons we believe we understand in spite of the protestations of elected officials. The Wednesday forum was canceled at the last minute by the library amid a flurry of background communication about the lack of diversity in the panel makeup.
A scramble ensued as people caring about the event and the potential for civic engagement on this issue were flummoxed when little explanation was given. Two rails began, finding a way to hold the event anyway and finding out what could have possibly stopped the potentially mild-mannered event.
The initial forum panel was specifically designed to “discuss transparency in government, experiences in dealing with public records and the reality of open government in Louisiana.”The program was designed to allow audience questions and answers.
Similar Sunshine programs analyze open records laws, citizens’ rights, accountability and many other issues that are designed to engage citizens in discussions and create a more informed electorate. Elected officials, public employees, public action committees (PACs), political parties and journalists should find these activities to their advantage, unless they fail to understand or intend to violate the spirit of the democratic process.
For local citizens, the library program seemed to be an excellent opportunity to exchange ideas concerning aspects of Public Records Requests (PRR) that seem to be more abused by the recipients of the requests rather than accepted as a legal obligation.
Regardless of how pressure forced the library to draw the curtains on the Sunshine Program, the show went on. Local citizens who are involved in PRR work are a minority in their own right, but the forum participants who discussed the issues were:
An attorney who works both sides of PRR issues, Tom Arceneaux;
A government watchdog and PRR advocate, Elliott Stonecipher;
Award winning investigative reporter and regular PRR server, Alison Bath;
Public Record advocate and organizer, Willie Bradford
Shreveport City Councilman, Jeff Everson, party to PRRs.
These panelists are not the “Radicals” as a commissioner alleged in an email opposing the discussion panel makeup.
Except for Mr. Bradford, these panelists were known to be on the original program and posted on Facebook for a week to the public. Information on some speakers was available to the organizing committee and others even earlier than that.
Yet, approximately 24 hours prior to the original forum, the library sent out a press release that the forum was cancelled! (continued below)
At this point I filed a PRR and was fortunate enough that the records management was in the hands of a qualified professional, Brittany Turner. I was fortunate enough to have worked with on previous PRR requests. I have been a visitor to library programs and am familiar with library protocol.
What I learned about PRR of government entities in our region is that the manner in which they address PRRs is often a form of censorship. We try to create a more open environment, yet what we accomplish is training professionals who deny openness. Often the very government and employees we support become enemies.
Those who work PRR data are in the minority. I didn’t create this panel, but the black attorneys I do know who work PRR issues were not included, such as Reggie Abrams and Terri Scott. They could have asked that they be added rather than halt a planned program.
Through prior public records requests, I verified there is No Library policy regarding diversity of panelists, and diversity has not been mandated during previous programs.
The majority of library programs fail to represent racial, economic, age, and gender diversity, and the track record is worse when considering representation based on sexual orientation, religion, ability, or other “diversity” characteristics. Both the elected officials and library leaders have invented a concern that, until discussion of this specific topic, never before existed in practice, policy, or procedure.
The negative lesson we observed was that bullies in public office and public employees can effectively censor any open discussion that may potentially expose flaws in those who hold power. It’s a phenomenally pitiful account of what a free speech based system should represent, especially a library. What a poor record to have to champion.
What the censors have demonstrated is that they don’t want open government. The obvious next step for them probably is to cancel the job title “Public Records Specialist” and require higher fees for providing such documents to requesters. And Sunshine Forums would no longer exist or officials and public employees be accountable to anyone except bullies.
What the public must demand is that mechanisms must exist to acquire and preserve documents that are tools used in communicating government business. Next have another panel with the few who really want to have real openness by demanding change and demand they stay on topic regardless of ethnicity or gender.
The embarrassing communications that followed the forum from Caddo Commissioner Stephanie Lynch were on top of the bullying email that came from fellow Commissioner Epperson. Library board members added insults to what a library represents. The concept of “Sunshine on Government” should tip elected officials that the public expects transparency and honesty.
Transparency and public records often tell stories of abuse. The fact that the public’s business is conducted through personal email accounts to hide content from PRRs is a travesty. Recently the Caddo Commission couldn’t provide an accounting of correspondence related to a PRR because commissioners evade the system and the public has no tool funded to allow for compliance, it’s the commission’s responsibility to use the abundant resources of the parish to pay for a better system.
I have recently been a party to a request which “should have turned over documents known to exist” that would have provided that the spirit of the PRR would have been complied with for us. If I and my associates had the resources that government has, we would demand true accountability. As far as I am concerned, parish commissioners have evaded providing legal documentation because they had the ability to manipulate the parish resources to accomplish things they know are wrong. They have a framework and lawyers to hide behind. But in time they and others will have to come into compliance.
Open government should not be a theory or a once a year topic. It should be the expected pattern of governance. Good people do not seek elected office because service in government has lost its luster. Elected officials whose defense of obfuscation and hiding and dealing under the cover of darkness offends anyone with character and principles?
The dirt seems to rub off far too easily once you raise your right hand and take an oath or accept a job in the public sector.
Among the sad lessons not learned is that records are transparent for what they are, black and white so to speak. They either are provided as required by law or they are purposefully not provided in the spirit of the law.
When officials, elected or working in public jobs, censor a program because they can at the last minute, they are as guilty of taking away all rights as any bigot anywhere. Commissioner Lynch has repeatedly called me a racist both online and in social media. This unfortunate representation is far from accurate, but I still defend her right to free speech.
So, now we must synthesize what we do the next time and what all should learn from these sad facts. We must keep the lines of communication open. We must expect and demand that anyone communicating in any written or digital communication understand the responsibility to make all communications public to a PRR issued, and we must make resources available (demand that they are made available) for preservation and presentation of digital records.
If the City of Shreveport has, perhaps by accident, the best email archival software available, but refuses to use it to turn over all records related to a PRR, we all lose.
It appears a cabal of politicians, public employees and manipulators work very hard to push agendas that are a disservice to citizens. This happen in the Caddo Parish School Board, Shreveport City Government and current MPC attempts to find a new director. The lesson citizens and officials should learn from this week and the forum is that we must find better ways to open government to the public. A Sunshine Program, as explained by all panelists, was needed and should be required for all elected officials, public employees and citizens alike.
*digital folder of emails and PRR contents of library communications regarding the cancelled forum available upon request. Here are several select emails from Lynch, Epperson and several board members.
DropBox of ALL SML Board emails related to Forum/Cancellation & Audio of Forum that was held(It may require assistance to download & play)
Shreveport Time article: http://www.shreveporttimes.com/article/20140323/OPINION/303230002/Marion-Marks-Open-means-open-when-comes-government