Government & Politics

Who’s got that public record you want? Government begins to comply with new law

State Rep. Chris Broadwater typed away on a Dell laptop last week at his legislative office in downtown Hammond.

State Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, checks government websites for compliance with his law requiring that a custodian of records be listed.

Tyler Bridges / The Lens

State Rep. Chris Broadwater checks government websites for compliance with his law requiring that a custodian of records be listed.

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.

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About Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism. Prior to that, he spent 13 years as a reporter for the Miami Herald, where he was twice a member of Pulitzer Prize-winning teams while covering state government, the city of Miami and national politics. He also was a foreign correspondent based in South America. Before the Herald, he covered politics for seven years at The Times-Picayune. He is the author of The Rise of David Duke (1994) and Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards (2001). He can be reached at (504) 810-6222.

  • Lee Barrios

    Well, speaking of public schools there is a lot of work to do. I doubt any charter schools identify a custodian for public records and in my experience they don’t even know of the public records law.

    As far as LDE is concerned, the public records custodian must be working overtime because John White has had most useful data and information purposefully removed. They don’t record all public meetings.

    When I took BESE and LDE to court for open meeting infraction they were able to get the AG who represented them and the judge who heard the case to rule that t he Suoerintendents Advisory Council was not an open meeting.

    It’s pretty frustrating to follow the law as a citizen and then face an unjust court at such great expense. It won’t prevent me from trying again though. As citizens, it is our responsibility to hold public officials accountable.

  • Tyler Bridges

    You raise good points, Lee. The first issue is to identify the custodian of public records. That’s what Rep Broadwater is doing with his legislation. We’re already seeing changes thanks to his law (and perhaps an assist from The Lens). Then the issue will become enforcement, i.e., will public agencies actually respond to our public records requests and in a timely fashion? The Jindal and Landrieu administrations have had a checkered record so far.

  • Lee Barrios

    Absolutely Tyler – there are all forms of accountability and just getting the law published and the public aware so that our officials know we are aware is one form of accountability. That’s why, in spite of being ignored, I and others continue to testify, comment, speak about problems with reform. Our officials will not be able to say down the road that they did not know. With a Dept. Of Ed whose policy promotes accountability as punishment (high stakes tests that create failure and lead to takeover) it will be somewhat ironic when they themselves are held “accountable” and punished for the laws they are breaking and the destruction they are causing to our schools and children. Thanks fir this article and I wrote to Rep. Broadcaster about these issues.

  • Tyler Bridges

    I’m sure Rep Broadwater will be glad to have heard from you. We need citizens to be involved!

  • Lee Barrios

    Tyler – transparency and democracy just took a step backwards yesterday with the release if the report of a lawsuit filed by Research on Reforms. You can imagine now how inaccessible data will be from LDE.

  • Tyler Bridges

    I must admit that I don’t keep up with LDE. Are you in touch with Tom Aswell. He does keep up with LDE.

  • Lee Barrios

    Yes. Good friends and collaborators.

  • Lee Barrios

    Update: last night at public forum in Kenner hosted by Rep. Julie Stokes re Common Core, I asked John White how he felt about the court ruling giving him the power yo choose who gets Dara for research. He said first of all that he knew nothing about the lawsuit – lie. Then when pressed for his position he said that he would not give Dara to Research on Reforms because it was a small local one person organization run by one politically motivated individual – Dr. Barbara Ferguson. Do we still believe the courts uphold a democracy or represented republic – whatever your flavor?