By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer |

The New Orleans City Council’s commitment to openness and transparency wavered a bit Thursday as it considered the process to fill the soon-to-be-open seat of Arnie Fielkow.

At least three of the seven council members wondered whether it is a good idea or necessary to make public the names of people who will apply for the position. State law says the applicants must be made public.

Fielkow has resigned, effective Oct. 1, and the council will appoint an interim member until an election can be held for a council member to fill out the rest of his term, which ends in May of 2014. At the meeting, the council scheduled an election for March 24; if necessary, the runoff will be April 21.

Councilman Jon Johnson expressed concerns that candidates “may have a situation” where they don’t want anyone to know they are applying for the position, and they do not want “the public exposure” of a public vetting.

He said publicly identifying candidates could be “scaring good people away.”

Fielkow said he, too, thought it was an “awkward situation to have them publicly vetted.”

Clarkson, who frequently points to her experience of more than 20 years in public office, didn’t know whether such applications or meetings had to be public. She asked for a legal opinion.

The council’s chief of staff said it was, indeed, required, and the council’s outside attorney concurred.

The council moved its next regular meeting from Sept. 15 to Sept. 22, to allow time for a meeting of its Governmental Affairs Committee to “view and vet” the candidates, Clarkson said.

Clarkson stressed that the eight-month duration of the appointment makes it even more important to be diligent in the selection process.

Clarkson said applicants “don’t have to appear” at the committee meeting. Rather, it is an opportunity, and she said that the committee was going to present all qualified applicants to the full council. The committee will not screen candidates, but merely weed out those who are ineligible, she said.

“We won’t hold anything against them” if they don’t appear at the committee meeting, she said.

Clarkson claimed there have been a number of inquiries into the position from people who didn’t realize that a council member must live in New Orleans Parish, and that the successful candidate will be barred from doing  business with the city.

While residency and conflicts of interest may seem to be common sense, Clarkson said a surprising number of applicants don’t know.

Johnson expressed slight exasperation “seems like they are going to have to jump through more hoops than we did to get elected” and went on to say “of course we have to vet for conflicts” but was worried that they was “a lot of rigmarole” involved in the process.

Clarkson ended the debate with the explanation “we are not trying to make it harder, we are trying to be transparent.

It’s not like they have a choice. Here’s the state law:

 The name of each applicant for a public position of authority or a public position with policymaking duties, the qualifications of such an applicant related to such position, and any relevant employment history or experience of such an applicant shall be available for public inspection, examination, copying, or reproduction.”

And the council shouldn’t be meeting privately in executive session to discuss the appointment, either. This is from the state Open Meetings Law:

 …Nothing in this Paragraph shall permit an executive session for discussion of the appointment of a person to a public body…

Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led...