3132: Who is Above the Law?

by Elliott Stonecipher

In the research done by the Finish 3132 Coalition, the Louisiana’s Public Records Act, weaknesses notwithstanding, is critically important.  Without it, the scant governmental transparency we do have all but disappears.  For those so inclined, here is the link to the core provision of our Public Records Act.  To save time, and in the context of this report, the following paragraph explains where the rubber meets the road:

§35.  Enforcement

A.  Any person who has been denied the right to inspect or copy a record under the provisions of this Chapter, either by a final determination of the custodian or by the passage of five days, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal public holidays, from the date of his request without receiving a final determination in writing by the custodian, may institute proceedings for the issuance of a writ of mandamus, injunctive or declaratory relief, together with attorney’s fees, costs and damages as provided for by this Section, in the district court for the parish in which the office of the custodian is located.

In recent months, Coalition attorney John Settle has filed many Public Records Requests (PRR) in our research into the collossal governmental failure now known as “the Hwy. 3132 Extension to the Port of Caddo-Bossier.”  This report updates the status of key such Requests.

(For those who would like to read our previous reports on these Requests, go to Finish3132.com, scroll down to 3132apedia by Elliott Stonecipher, then select and read the February 15, 2012 and March 8, 2012 reports.)

Northwest Louisiana Council of Governments (NLCOG)  

Details of our struggle to get e-mails and other documents from NLCOG have been previously shared, and that struggle continues unabated.

Now, in the best example I know of to demonstrate how the Public Records Act functions in the real world of forcing government accountability, we have discovered that Requested documents have been withheld by NLCOG.

In a later, parallel Request we filed for such documents from the Shreveport City Engineering department – a Request which has produced very little, so far – key e-mails on which the NLCOG Director, Kent Rogers, was copied were produced by City Engineering because those officials participated in the subject e-mail discussions.  All such e-mails during that time period, on those subjects, were requested from NLCOG on December 15, 2011.  Nonetheless, Rogers / NLCOG did not produce them.  Although NLCOG’s resistance to open meetings and other public access to information has been repeatedly demonstrated, this is a development which undermines the core principle on which the efficacy of the Public Records rests.

On Monday, February 19, 2012, the Coalition e-mailed NLCOG Attorney Jerry Jones and members of the NLCOG Executive Committee, including Shreveport Mayor Glover and Bossier City Mayor Lo Walker.  The e-mail was written both to inform them of the suggested withholding of documents from the public, and to provide them the opportunity to refute or further explain any such withholding of legally requested documents, produce more e-mails, or offer any other such clarification.

We have received no response to our e-mail.

City Engineer, Shreveport

This Request was issued February 14, 2012, at the same time – but in a separate Request – as the Request to Mayor Cedric Glover.  Well past the stipulated response date, Coalition attorney John Settle received a message from City Attorney Terri Scott which asserted that a responsible city employee believed over 34,000 e-mails qualified for inclusion under the terms of our Request, which, we believe, is purely a gaming of the system and law.  Nothing accompanied the message – none of the many documents which are not e-mails, not even one e-mail, nothing.  Then, at the end of last week, over a month after the Request, a smattering of documents were delivered to Mr. Settle.  Our review continues, but it appears the “production” was cherry-picked, i.e., notably limited.

Mayor Glover

Nothing.  That’s the best way to characterize the mayor’s reaction to our Request.  We are left to wonder if his city attorney will even bother to tell us that Glover couldn’t care less what the law says the public has a right to see.  Given that he is openly and laughingly gaming rather than adhering to the law, we expect him to ultimately repeat the city attorney’s claim of over 34,000 qualifying e-mails – a likely confection made at his direction.  How that empowers him in some manner to completely ignore the law and produce nothing in over 5 weeks is the question.

Dr. Eric Kalivoda, Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development (LA DOTD)

Dr. Kalivoda’s PRR was faxed and mailed to him March 7, 2012.  Within the 5-day response requirement, a DOTD staffer initially tried to argue the difficulty of her schedule to drag things beyond the time requirements of the law, but to the credit of DOTD, that initial response was quickly countermanded by the DOTD Counsel.  The initial, and substantive, response from Dr. Kalivoda / DOTD was delivered to Mr. Settle yesterday.  The two-week period since the initial PRR is understandable given the scope of this particular PRR.

The weakness in Louisiana’s Public Records Act, as pointed out this week in a study by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, DC, is that the Louisiana citizenry must go to court to pursue records withheld by our government officials and agencies.  In fact, the Center gave a letter grade of “F” to Louisiana in the “Public Access to Information” category.

The gamers of the system who have no respect for the law know this, and exploit it, for two key reasons:  (1) the cost of legal proceedings they provoke and cause is paid by the taxpayers, not them, and, therefore, (2) such public officials see no downside risk in stiffing those who elect and/or pay them.  

The Coalition’s pursuit of the e-mails and other documents will, of course, continue as necessary.

I hope and trust that this update is of value to the reader, and the Finish 3132 Coalition thanks you for your support of our effort to fully investigate the collapse in government responsibility and accountability which brought us here.

Elliott Stonecipher

Elliott Stonecipher’s reports, essays and commentaries are written strictly in the public interest.  No compensation of any kind has been solicited, offered or accepted for this work.

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