Government & Politics

The Lens loses public records lawsuit against city of New Orleans

An Orleans Parish judge has shot down The Lens’ lawsuit seeking that he declare that the city of New Orleans habitually fails to follow state public-records law because it doesn’t provide documents within the time frame outlined in the statute.

The law says records must be produced immediately, and if they’re in use, that a time must be set within three business days for citizens to review them. The city’s practice is to send a letter within three days stating that it is processing the request and that it would review records for anything that isn’t subject to public-records law.

Orleans Parish Civil District Judge Kern Reese appeared to support that practice. In his ruling, issued Monday, he wrote that the law is “NOT hard, fast and definite,” and that the city must screen records to remove private or privileged information.

The judge denied all three of The Lens’ requests in his ruling:

  • To order the city to produce records that The Lens requested weeks or months ago
  • To declare that the city has a pattern of not providing public records in a timely manner
  • To issue an injunction that would prevent city officials from continuing their practice of delayed compliance

The Lens’ suit named several requests that had gone unfilled, some dating back months, plus others that the city eventually provided after similar delays.

The city provided four of the five sets of records days after The Lens sued. On the last one, the city agreed in a meeting last week to try to provide the records The Lens seeks. That request, for the city’s purchasing and contracting database, was made in February; the city has denied multiple requests for portions of the database since last fall.

Although the city has not yet provided all the records named in the suit, Reese wrote in his ruling that all the requests have been filled.

Editor Steve Beatty said he’s disappointed with the outcome. “We’ll consider our options, but an appeal is certainly a possibility,” he said.

Scott Sternberg, The Lens’ lawyer, said the lawsuit did get the city to provide four of the five sets of records. And on the last one, “the city has agreed to do its best to get us the database of invoices and receipts that we have been seeking for months.”

The Lens firmly believes “that the city should provide records within the confines provided by law so that the people can review the work of their government,” Sternberg said.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One of the delayed sets of records, sent to The Lens a week after it filed suit, showed that the city is paying a steep fee to a private company to collect delinquent taxes — more than double what another company charged a few years ago.

The Lens requested those records on March 10. The city turned them over May 19.

In an court hearing Thursday, Senior Chief Deputy City Attorney Cherrell Simms argued that the city must balance its responsibility to protect private information with the public’s right to view public records.

She told Reese that the city averages 12 days to respond to public records requests.

In his ruling, Reese agreed:

The Louisiana Public Records Law is NOT hard, fast, and definite. There are exceptions.
The court acknowledges that response time may vary depending upon the simplicity or
complexity of the request. Some responses may contain privileged information, attorney work
product, personal privacy information, etc. and therefore, must be screened to cull out such

The law allows a public agency to take longer to provide records if it provides an “estimate of the time reasonably necessary for collection, segregation, redaction, examination, or review” of a request. The city, however, does not provide an estimate.

Reese said delayed requests must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis “to ascertain if any unwarranted recalcitrance or other nefarious motivations are involved.”

However, he wrote, “should the constitutional mandates of access to public documents be abridged, such action will be dealt with accordingly.”

Adam Marshall, a legal fellow with Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said he found the ruling “perplexing.”

Louisiana public records law sets a time limit of three days to produce records, he said. “And I think agencies, both in Louisiana and around the country, unfortunately, tend to treat the statutory time limit as suggestions rather than the law.”

Marshall said the issue raised in the lawsuit is important. “Timeliness is of utmost importance, not just for reporters but for the public. If the government isn’t responding, that not only harms them [the press] but does harm to the public because they aren’t getting the information they need to make informed decisions in a democratic society.”

Read the judge’s ruling

Reese Ruling (Text)

This story was updated after publication to include comments from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. (June 3, 2015)

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.

  • Andrew

    A vagrant petitioned for a hot dog. I waved him away and strode forth.

  • Good on The Lens to force this issue. It doesn’t look like you lost — just that the case became moot when the City produced the records in Court. That’s their strategy, to delay until taken to court, then produce and make the instant case moot. The City knows Joe-citizen can’t afford court-action, so it’s good to have The Lens expose City Attorney Williams’ little charade. Thanks!

  • nickelndime

    Don’t appeal – there are just more judges and lots of them were city attorneys first. And just remember – there is nothing hard firm or definite about the law – unless, of course, a judge decides it is. Yada T. Magee was a city attorney. Then she was “made” a CDC judge in 1986. Look how that turned out. GUFFAW! 06/03/2015 3:57 PM DST USA

  • Tim

    That’s interesting that the judge interprets the statutory time period as a suggestion. I wonder what else in Louisiana code might actually be just good advice or friendly guidance.

  • nickelndime

    I guess Judge Reese will do a much better job in the Benson case which involves a lot (millions/billions of dollars) of private money and sports instead of the law and the public trust, which just goes to show that it’s business as usual in this city and this state. But it does not mean that THE LENS should stop. Try another road. You won’t get it alone or in the legal system in New Orleans, Louisiana, or from lawmakers. It’s a riddle. Figure it out. 06/03/2015 10:12 PM DST USA

  • Lee Barrios

    This ruling is frivolous. The open records law is “hard and fast” with clear stipulations. One cannot expect in the state of Louisiana to have a fair hearing at any level of government or any branch. Ethics Admin, AG, judges – I hope you appeal.

  • Just another New Orleans public figure, making it up as he goes along…

  • nickelndime

    YES, Lee Barrios, there is NO such thing as a fair hearing in any part of the State of Louisiana at any level of government. So — what is the smartest thing to do? I think you are going to figure it out. It’s not in the courtrooms of CDC. It’s not at the appeal level. It’s not in the legislature. No, it’s not in that damn voting booth. Where is it, Lee? You can do it, girl. You know you got it. 06/04/2015 2:15 AM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    Is Judge Reese also a fellow graduate of Loyola University School of Law, as was “The Departed,” Yada T. Magee (as in the movie with Jack Nicholson)? If so, there may be a connection (work with me here) between/among the Reverend Wildes, President of Loyola University of New Orleans, the recently deceased Yada T. Magee, and the lack of integrity of Judge Kern Reese. GUFFAW GUFFAW 06/04/2015 2:35 AM DST USA