Inside the News Room

The Lens heads back to court against city, trying to get database of spending

In an ongoing public records fight, The Lens returns to court Thursday seeking a database of public contracts and related spending that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has failed to provide for months.

Earlier this year, The Lens sued Landrieu and the city for not providing several public documents, and for regularly failing to fulfill public records requests in a timely manner.

State law says public records must be produced immediately. If they’re in use, the city must set a time within three business days to comply. The city’s practice is to send a letter within three business days stating that it is working on the request. These so-called “initial response letters” typically do not indicate when the records will be made available.

It’s not uncommon for The Lens to wait weeks or months for public records from the city.

In its lawsuit, The Lens cited five unfulfilled requests as examples of the city’s failure to comply with state law. Days after The Lens sued, the city produced four of the five, but it has failed to fulfill a February request for the BuySpeed database, containing city purchasing and contracting records.

Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese initially issued a ruling that dismissed the matter and said the city had provided all the records, but The Lens was granted Thursday’s rehearing after it brought the oversight to the judge’s attention.

Lens attorney Scott Sternberg, of Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer, LLC, said the nonprofit news organization is hoping the judge will order the city to provide access to the database.

“It’s been almost four months since our May hearing where we gave the city more time to respond,” Sternberg said. “Unfortunately we still haven’t seen results, and so we’re asking the judge to order the city to produce these public records so The Lens can take a global look at city spending.”

Among other things, the city said it was concerned about security because the database contains individual sign-in information, even though The Lens has made it clear that such information can be excluded.

The Lens’ special projects editor, Steve Myers, said he worries if the request is denied it will set a troublesome precedent that databases are not subject to public scrutiny simply because public employees enter usernames and passwords to access them.

“So in the transition from filing cabinets to databases, the public loses its right for review,” Myers said. “That can’t align with what legislators intended, especially considering that the law names electronic records.”

He said The Lens tried to work with the city before the lawsuit was filed, but even agreeing on what was sought was difficult.

“The city repeatedly told us, ‘BuySpeed is not a database that maintains the information requested,’ which is not true,” Myers said. “We ended up having to prove to the city that it wasn’t true, a process that took months.”

After the Aug. 14 court appearance in which The Lens asked for Thursday’s rehearing, Reese also amended another part of his initial ruling, which denied The Lens’ request for him to issue a judgment saying the city regularly fails to provide public records in a timely manner. His follow-up ruling said that allegation has not been argued or settled, and he allowed The Lens to pursue such a lawsuit.

Thursday’s hearing, which is set for 9 a.m., will focus on only the database that hasn’t been turned over. Reese has not set a trial date on the larger issue.

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