The Lens filed a lawsuit against the city of New Orleans on Tuesday asking that a judge declare that the city has habitually violated public records law because it commonly takes weeks or months to produce documents that are supposed to be available immediately.
State law allows government agencies three days to provide access to public records if they’re in use. In the examples cited in The Lens’ lawsuit, the city took up to four months. The lawsuit also cites five unfulfilled requests dating back to January.
Over the past two years, the city has failed to provide records within the legal limit in about two-thirds of The Lens’ requests, according to the filing by Lens attorney Scott Sternberg of Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer.
Lens Editor Steve Beatty said the nonprofit news outlet has dealt with this for years. “The Lens is taking this to court because we’re tired of the city simply not complying with the public-records law,” he said.
Last year, The New Orleans Advocate reported on “inordinate delays” faced by journalists, lawyers and citizens seeking records from the city.
Not only does the lawsuit seek the records in question, it asks a Civil District Court judge to declare that the city isn’t following the law and to force it to start. The case has been assigned to Judge Kern Reese; a hearing has been set for 9 a.m. Monday.
“We hope our efforts benefit all those seeking to exercise their rights guaranteed by the state constitution,” Beatty said.
The lawsuit names the city and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the official custodian of city records. It cites requests made by Lens reporters Charles Maldonado and Abe Handler dating back to August.
The records they’ve sought are typical of government reporters, including:
- Records of city spending, including invoices, receipts and checks to government contractors
- Financial reports for Ceasefire and NOLA for Life, two of the city’s crime-fighting efforts
- Calendars for the mayor and Andy Kopplin, the city’s chief administrative officer
One of the delayed requests was for email messages between city officials and the Rev. Kevin Wildes, Loyola University president and, at the time, a member of the city’s Civil Service Commission. It took the city a month to provide them.
The emails showed how Wildes and city officials worked arm-in-arm to rework city employment rules in Landrieu’s favor.
In one of those emails, Wildes referred to a Lens story about the Civil Service Commission’s decision to change lawyers on a lawsuit related to those employment rules.
“I just discovered that the Lens is housed on our campus,” he wrote. “I think they just earned a rent increase.”
Soon after, Loyola decided not to renew The Lens’ office-space agreement. University officials said the school needed the space and that The Lens’ reporting wasn’t an issue.
The lawsuit notes that the City Attorney’s Office reviews all public-records requests and the documents provided in response. That causes unnecessary delays because most records do not contain information that is exempt from public-records law.
The Lens argues in its lawsuit that the city “attempts to mask its failure to respond using a form letter stating it is reviewing the records for ‘public information’ and for information which is ‘not otherwise exempt from the Public Records Law.’ “
The Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled that government bodies must interpret public-records law liberally and err on the side of openness.
A request for comment from city spokesman Bradley Howard went unanswered.
Read the lawsuit