Government & Politics

City to appeal Lens’ public-records victory, keeping purchasing records hidden

A judge granted the city of New Orleans’ request Monday to put on hold his order to provide public records of city spending requested by The Lens until the city can appeal his ruling from last month.

At a March 18 hearing, Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese ordered the city to immediately produce its purchasing database, which The Lens has been seeking for more than a year.

The city filed a motion for suspensive appeal Monday, asking to be temporarily relieved from the order to produce the BuySpeed database until it can appeal. Reese granted that request, meaning The Lens likely will not receive the database anytime soon.

Lens Editor Steve Beatty said the move is disappointing, but not a surprise.

“This fits right into the city’s well-established pattern of delaying the release of public information,” Beatty said.

At the March hearing, 10 months into the lawsuit, Reese had little patience for the city’s concerns that the database could contain personal information, such as a social security number or personal address, due to human errors.

Lens attorney Scott Sternberg, of Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer, said then that withholding data because of the city’s carelessness would set a dangerous precedent and that the law made no exception for it. He added afterwards that The Lens has absolutely no interest in publishing people’s social security numbers.

“These documents are public documents,” Reese said. “They need to be released.”

The March order was a victory for the nonprofit news outlet, Beatty said, explaining The Lens had hoped to bring more transparency to the city’s spending habits. The BuySpeed database contains records of the city’s purchase orders, receipts from vendors, payments to the vendors and running totals toward contract amounts, among other spending information.

The Lens first sought the city’s purchasing database under state Public Records Law in January 2015.

After months of waiting, the nonprofit newsroom sued the city and Mayor Mitch Landrieu for habitually failing to provide public records within the time allowed by state public records law and requested a judge order records produced immediately.

The city’s typical practice was to send an initial response letter within three days of a records request, but state law requires the records be produced within three days. Otherwise the city must set a date and time they will be made available, information the form letters did not include.

Reese initially ruled against The Lens, citing the fact that five records the news outlet listed as examples of outstanding requests had been provided after the lawsuit was filed. But The Lens was granted another hearing after pointing out one of the five records, the BuySpeed database, still had not been provided. In September he ruled the city must begin producing the database, and he told the two sides to negotiate a way to provide the public information but prevent disclosure of personal information. Those talks failed.

The Lens continues to wait for basic records that the city has an obligation to produce.

“We respect the city’s legal right to appeal,” Beatty said. “We just wish the city would respect the public’s right to review how it spends taxpayer money.”


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