BOSSIER CITY, LA — Top officials in Bossier City were NOT shocked to learn the size of liabilities pending against the city in litigation pending in Federal as well as State courts. However, the public will soon understand the implications of Tuesday’s news from the U.L. Coleman settlement (DOWNLOAD) regarding the “Curb Cut” on the Arthur Ray Teague Parkway and releasing over $6.7 Million in damages as well as the obligation to spend over $10.4 million in unplanned infrastructure that will hit the budget and funds of the city for years to come. And, this may only be the tip of the iceberg of potential liabilities. (Original Litigation)
The communications regarding this settlement have been the subject of speculation and contention by many behind-the-scenes watchdog groups since the litigation first appeared. The head of a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks public records issues said government officials often use private email accounts to try to sidestep disclosure laws designed to provide sunshine in government. This exact issue brought Jindal’s administration scrutiny regarding Medicaid funding by the federal government and how the State was bypassing public records laws.
Louisiana’s public records law states that all documents used in “the conduct, transaction or performance” of public business are considered public except in cases where there is a specific exemption. So, legally, the parties to these discussions should be required to turn over ALL communications regarding these activities. Failure to provide these communications carries a penalty!
And in the case of the governor’s office, “we believe that conducting public business even when using personal means of communication is subject to public records law,” Nichols, the governor’s commissioner of administration, said in a statement.
“Absolutely people use private accounts to hide things,” said Kenneth Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, based at the University of Missouri. “If government business is conducted or information about it is sent or received on personal computers or through personal email accounts, that does not keep it from being the public’s business.”
In Baton Rouge, communications are sent on private accounts without official sanction, but the administration knows they are breaking the spirit and letter of the law. Jindal communications director Kyle Plotkin sent multiple group emails in July to DHH employees using each employee’s personal email accounts when talking about the media’s coverage of the Medicaid budget cuts. Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates said the governor’s office encourages all officials to conduct state business on state accounts. But it’s still not required.
DHH spokeswoman Kristen Sunde said the department agrees “any state issues discussed over electronic communication are subject to public records law, regardless of the type of account used.” So, what is required in Baton Rouge should also apply in Bossier.
Most Bossier email accounts are archived with very sophisticated software that makes it easy to retrieve select correspondence. This is true of most public systems in the State today where these issues are being questioned. Bossier, Shreveport and Caddo all use a local company system, ArcMail, that is judged one of the best in the world for archiving digital communications. However, It’s unclear how department attorneys and computer experts who do the leg work in responding to public records requests would know to check individual employees’ personal email accounts for documents complying with a request. These emails should be included in any check.
Email exchanges in Louisiana regularly take place using private email accounts and the lawyer-client communication protection in order to hide or protect alleged conspiracy communications intended to cover illegal actions by public employees, elected officials or their representatives. In the case of Medicaid programs, the Jindal administration was planning steep reductions to programs for the poor and uninsured because of a drop in federal Medicaid funding. In the case of Bossier City officials, it appears that political maneuvers intended to use elected office to “manage” who received what and how much was paid behind the scenes to whom was in jeopardy if Coleman didn’t work within the system. Coleman chose to fight what was deemed an illegal act by the city. And now it appears that Coleman won!
Fall is the time when many farmers take their hogs to market. But now Bossier seems to be the fat hog that will be publicly slaughtered, and the public will bear the cost of poor management and questionable judgement, at best. Or, illegal actions by city leaders will become public knowledge barring a “sealed settlement.” And, if the settlement is sealed, the public must demand accountability and any details of public officials that may have been illegal. The public should not be required to pay for any unlawful conduct of a public official.
As Jindal campaigned for his first term on a platform of providing more transparency in government, Bossier will now learn lessons in transparency. The real question to the public should be, “will the truly guilty be forced to pay a price?” This is why we have courts and law enforcement. And, hopefully, the guilty will eventually be punished.