Government & Politics
 

The Lens settles public-records lawsuit over city of New Orleans’ purchasing database

The Lens expects to get a hard drive this week containing the city of New Orleans’ purchasing database after settling a public-records lawsuit filed in 2015.

The database contains the names of all vendors who do business with the city, how much they’ve been paid, and records showing what services they provided.

Lawyers for the city had maintained they couldn’t ensure that the purchasing database, called BuySpeed, was free of private information that the city contended is exempt from the state public records law.

The city said someone would have to manually check the database, which would be so time-consuming that they shouldn’t have to provide it at all.

The city and the Lens attempted to reach some sort of settlement several times over the past two and a half years. Finally, the city determined it could weed out most of the sensitive data, and The Lens promised to keep private any inadvertent disclosures.

“Public records lawsuits are supposed to be quick, but this one was especially complex,” said Lens attorney Scott Sternberg of Sternberg, Naccari & White.

“It was complex not because of the nature of the request,” he said, “but because the city effectively admitted that it was not keeping this important data in a manner that made it available for us to review. That was not a practice we thought should be encouraged or rewarded, and so we kept fighting.”

He said the settlement “allays the city’s concerns and ensures the public’s right to know.”

City spokeswoman Erin Burns declined to comment on the settlement.

The agreement was finalized and signed last month by Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese.

The Lens sued the city in May 2015, arguing the city habitually failed to provide public records within the required time frame.

State law says records must be produced immediately. If they’re in use, the government agency must set a time within three business days to comply. An agency can take longer to collect records or review them for exceptions, as long as they say how long it will take.

In the cases cited in the lawsuit, the city took up to four months to provide certain records.

Its practice was to send a letter within three business days stating that it was working on the request. These “initial response letters” typically did not indicate when the records would be made available.

Now the city’s responses generally say how long it will take to review or collect records, Sternberg said.

The suit cited five cases in which the city hadn’t provided records. Within days, the city handed over records in four of them, leaving just the BuySpeed request unfulfilled.

The lawsuit was split into two parts, one about the BuySpeed database and the other about the city’s pattern of failing to respond to records requests.

In September 2015, Reese ordered the city to turn over a list of vendors while it worked to provide the entire database.

But the two sides were back in court in March 2016 because the city said it couldn’t remove all private data. Among the exceptions to the state’s public records law are Social Security numbers and contact information for city employees if they have requested it not be shared.

The Lens argued that it should be straightforward to use software or queries to exclude such information.

In the March 2016 hearing, city lawyer William Goforth said there was no way to account for human error, such as entering a Social Security number into a section designated for an address.

“It’s simply impossible to eliminate all private data from the database,” Goforth said.

In that case, Reese said, the city would have to turn over the entire database. “These documents are public documents,” he said. “They need to be released.”

The city appealed. The appeals court told Reese to reconsider the matter because he hadn’t held a formal hearing allowing each side to present its case.

Separately, Reese ruled that the city had violated The Lens’ rights by failing to respond to records requests within the legally required timeframe.

The city appealed that ruling too, but dropped it this summer after the two sides started moving toward a settlement on the BuySpeed database. In exchange, The Lens gave up its claim to attorney’s fees.

In the end, the city agreed to run a series of queries on the database to reduce the likelihood that any of the records turned over to The Lens contain information excluded from the public records law. The Lens agreed to take steps to protect the database and to delete any private information it came across.

Abe Handler, who worked for The Lens as a news technologist, requested the BuySpeed records after he created a database of city contracts. He said he wanted to know whether the city held spending to the amounts outlined in the contracts, which projects went over budget, and whether vendors delivered their work on time.

“Unfortunately, getting these records required a long, expensive legal fight,” he said in an email. “Such costs limit the effectiveness of public records laws. Not everyone who is legally entitled to city records can afford a lawyer and years in court.”

The Society of Professional Journalists gave The Lens $10,000 to help pay its legal bills for the suit.

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