State Rep. Chris Broadwater typed away on a Dell laptop last week at his legislative office in downtown Hammond.
Broadwater was checking to see which government agencies had complied with a measure, House Concurrent Resolution 129, that the state Legislature approved unanimously in June. Sponsored by Broadwater, it requires government agencies to make it easy for citizens to find out online how they can file public records requests, by identifying who on the website is the custodian of those records.
Broadwater, a first-term Republican, is already getting results.
He could not find a custodian on the governor’s website, which was an irony given Bobby Jindal’s campaign promise to be the “most transparent” governor in Louisiana history.
The Lens asked Jindal’s office for an explanation on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Jindal’s office updated his website to provide a custodian.
The office of Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne also updated its website after The Lens inquired.
“I’m adding it as we speak,” Jacques Berry, Dardenne’s press secretary, said Wednesday. “It will be up before the end of the day.”
Broadwater couldn’t readily find the custodian on the pages for the Secretary of State, the Treasurer’s office or Louisiana Economic Development. But the press secretaries provided the links, in response to queries from The Lens.
Broadwater did find a custodian listed on each of several other major websites: the Louisiana House and Senate, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Attorney General and the Louisiana Department of Insurance.
After checking various state sites for nearly an hour, Broadwater concluded: “In state government, we have some state agencies that are doing an excellent job. And we have some that need improvement. And I suspect that’s what you would find throughout the state if you checked every public body.”
Broadwater also found mixed results in randomly checking local government websites.
Broadwater filed the bill after one of his constituents, C.B. Forgotston, complained that he repeatedly ran into problems when trying to file public records requests.
“It takes a long time finding out who the custodian of public records is [on a website] so you don’t send it to the wrong person,” said Forgotston, an attorney and blogger who has worked as a lobbyist and senior legislative aide. “The person who isn’t the custodian has no responsibility to even respond. You don’t know if they’re stonewalling you. It’s a delaying tactic to keep you from knowing who the custodian is. I’ve learned that the first thing is you have to make a request to find out who the custodian is.”
Forgotston added: “Public records requests matter because that’s the most important way we have transparency in government. We ought to be able to read anything we want that is not excepted under the law. … Government belongs to us. Government belongs to the people.”
Broadwater couldn’t find the custodian of public records on the Secretary of State’s website. But Meg Casper, Secretary of State Tom Schedler’s press secretary, provided a link. Under “Recipient,” you have to open the “Public Records Request” pane. Casper said she would be meeting with the office’s webmaster about making the custodian easier to find.
Broadwater also couldn’t find the custodian on the Louisiana Economic Development website. Gary Perilloux, the agency’s press secretary, provided the link.
In Hammond, Broadwater checked the website for the city of New Orleans. He went to the “News & Media” tab. “I see press releases,” he said.
“I’m looking for a search box to search the entire site. I haven’t found one,” he added.
He clicked on the “Transparency & Accountability” link. “They have a great site in terms of having lots of documents online. But I’m not seeing a specific custodian identified.”
Broadwater did a Google search. It took him to the City Attorney’s page. There he found a link for “Public Records Requests.”
“They don’t identify a custodian of records, but they provide an online request form. They do make it pretty easy for the public to identify how to request documents.”
Broadwater next checked the Jefferson Parish homepage. By typing “public records request” in the search box, he found a link for filing one.
“It was not difficult to identify,” Broadwater said. “Any citizen could do that.”
Said Jefferson Parish President John Young in an email: “Since taking office as Parish President in October of 2010, this Administration has been committed to making Jefferson Parish government transparent and accountable to the citizens we serve. We have posted contracts on line and we have provided summaries of public records requests on line to name just two changes. The link to a public records custodian was another change we initiated and implemented prior to the passage of HCR 129.”
Broadwater checked another local government website: St. Bernard Parish Public Schools. He did not find a custodian of public records.
The Lens sent an email request for an explanation to Superintendent Doris Voitier on Tuesday but received no reply.
Broadwater was especially pleased that the state House and Senate quickly complied with the resolution.
“If the Legislature says you should do this, its own House should be in order,” House Clerk Alfred Speer explained.