by Marion Marks
Shreve Memorial Library is sponsoring at Cohab, in downtown Shreveport a discussion panel dealing with transparency in government, experiences dealing with public records, and the reality of open government in Louisiana. The program is scheduled from 7:00-8:30 followed by question-and-answer with the audience. Panelists scheduled to appear are Elliott Stoneciper (Evets Management Services, Inc.), Tom Arceneaux (attorney with Blanchard, Walker, O’Quin & Roberts), Alison Bath (The Shreveport Times), Danny Lawler (The Inquisitor) and Jeff Everson (City of Shreveport-City Council).
Current public records requests with the City Council, Mayor and Parish Commission will certainly be part of the topic of discussion. In light of the struggle to control the leadership of the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) and documents that have been sent to us, a PRR (Public Records Request) was submitted to determine what other improper or potentially illegal email will be forthcoming from the two bodies and the mayor.
I am NOT an attorney, but the attorneys who we have engaged to assist with this utilizing the Public Records Act of Louisiana (R.S. 44:1 et seq.), told us to respectfully request the following information. And our request was as specific and narrow as possible so as to not give a chance to come back with a “too broad” response from the city or parish attorneys.
The specific information requested is “Bulls eye”clear. We asked for: documents, emails, texts, faxes, appointment calendars & logs containing reference to the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC), and/or any and all staff and/or board members of the MPC from September 1, 2013 thru March 10, 2014. This request specifically includes all email, FaceBook postings or messages or any and all electronic communication or other social media website, both public and personal email accounts and any other form of communication covered by Louisiana Public Records requirements.
We did NOT ask for “information,” but “documents containing” as we know that some of the documents exist from whistle blowers who are as upset as we are that the MPC process of choosing a new leader has been subject to improper pressure or influence from some elected officials.This should anger most citizens who expect the MPC to be independent of such pressures, yet many are unfazed by the “business as usual attitude of some officials.”
If we had worded our PRR as a request for “information,” they could come back with the response that we failed to request a record and they are not bound by law to provide “information.” Also, we asked for the opportunity to “review” what we requested, particularly if it is not in digital format. That way, we can pick and choose what copies we want. Otherwise, they will deliberately roll out a stack of documents to run the cost up as high as possible to discourage our request. Simply the request of documents seems to be always met with the standard reply – “Oh, this will take a long time…” The actual request response was: “Given the extensive nature of your March 10, 2014 public records request, we are requesting that you consent to granting the MPC staff, Shreveport City Council and Mayor Cedric Glover until March 26, 2014 to respond to your request. The additional time will afford the MPC staff, City Council members and staff and Mayor Glover and staff sufficient time to identify the documents, emails, texts, faxes, appointment calendars and logs that are responsive to your request and subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act. For purposes of our response, please indicate whether MPC case files, staff reports and other information generally obtained and maintained by the MPC staff in connection with rezoning requests, subdivision approvals and similar requests which the MPC is authorized by state law to review are excluded from your definition of “documents”.”
Our response was that the city pays an extremely high price for an email archival system designed to archive and filter requests of this nature. ARCMAIL is truly an outstanding tool, and the preservation of communications in cases like this is invaluable. The system may or may not be capturing ALL email addresses that members of the city government use for email communication. However, we know that many communications DID use their city email addresses. Perhaps this was sloppy, but quite often that is how traces of improper conduct are discovered.
Most improper communication we were given came from private email address, and even though these are not covered bythis backup of the city, emails can and should be preserved and turned over as a part of this request, and these should be supplied in an expedited manner. Many senders of improper emails used non-office/ private accounts, yet they sent their correspondence to others using both private and public email addresses. When the business of the public is at risk, our attorneys indicate that there is NO expectation of privacy or right to withhold these emails.
Finally, and most important: Some public agencies believe they have three days in which to respond. They don’t. The only reference to three days is in case a document is unavailable because it is in use or for some other reason. In such instances, the custodian of the records must immediately notify us in writing as to when the document will be available within three working days.The penalties for non-compliance with the law calls for fines of up to $1,000 per day for each day the custodian is late on each request, court costs and attorney fees.
We hope more citizens will come to this opportunity to understand the requirement and obligation of government operating in “sunshine,” even if it is difficult to demand compliance. Currently the program is only on FaceBook, but the library will have it on their website very soon.