Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese said the city failed to follow the provisions of the Louisiana Public Records law, violating The Lens’ constitutional right to examine public records, during a hearing Friday.

In his ruling, Reese said that the city failed to adhere to the law, including responding within legal deadlines and providing an estimate of how long the city would take to release records that The Lens requested.

“Gee, I guess what you’re asking me is that the city follow the law,” Reese said at the hearing.

The state Public Records Law generally requires public bodies to produce public records within three business days of a request. The custodian of the records can also respond with a letter detailing any exceptions that apply — and there are many, the Judge noted.  But if the records are not immediately produced, the law requires them to provide a reasonable estimate of how long it will take to collect, segregate, examine or review a request.

The Lens filed suit last year, noting in its complaint that over two years, the city failed to produce records within legal limits for two-thirds of its requests. Friday marks the second time that Reese has ruled for The Lens in public records lawsuits against the city. In an earlier ruling, he ordered the city to release its contracting database, which The Lens first requested early last year.

Lens Editor Steve Beatty said the issue at hand was simple.

“If the city can’t immediately comply with the law, it has to give the public a reasonable estimate of the time it will take to provide records,” Beatty said. “I can’t understand why the city wouldn’t want to do this without a judge’s order.

“It’s a shame that taxpayers had to foot the cost of going to court, just to have a judge tell the city that it’s required to follow the law.”

In court, Lens attorney Scott Sternberg, of Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer, argued Reese’s ruling could affect records access for all.

“We think that if you declare that, it will really change the way public records work in this city,” Sternberg said.

“The public records law is not a one-size-fits-all blanket regulation on how the city must produce records for individual requests,” Assistant City Attorney Will Goforth argued.

Reese told Goforth the burden to segregate records and provide a timeline to the requester falls to the city.

“I think the actual letter of the law indicates that it’s the responsibility of the city and any other governmental entity,” Reese said.

State law requires requested records to be produced immediately if not in use, or within three business days if in use. But the law recognizes that some records may contain information — such as private information like employee Social Security numbers or privileged attorney-client communications — that isn’t subject to public disclosure. The law provides that in some instances, public bodies may go beyond the normal deadlines in order to review the records and redact or segregate information, provided they tell the requesters approximately how long that will take.

The city’s practice, however, has been to send a form letter — typically at the three-day mark — stating that it is processing the request and that it will review records for anything that isn’t subject to public-records law.

The Lens alleged in its lawsuit that the city sends these letters, called “initial response letters,” in nearly all cases regardless of the nature of the records being sought. The problem with the city’s form letter is it fails to tell requesters how long they can expect the process to take.

Sternberg argued many people requesting records don’t have the money to hire a lawyer to compel the city to tell them how long it will take to produce a public record.

The Lens filed its lawsuit against the city in May 2015. 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 a new trial after pointing out that Reese had dismissed the entire action, even though at least one of the five records, the database, still had not been provided.

In September, Reese ruled the city must begin producing the database, and told the two sides to negotiate a way to provide the public information but prevent disclosure of personal information. Those talks failed.

In March, he ordered the city to produce the entire database and awarded The Lens $2,500 in attorney’s fees, plus court costs. The city is appealing his order. And in April, the Society for Professional Journalists awarded the Lens $10,000 to continue the legal pursuit of the purchasing database.

At Friday’s hearing, Reese also awarded court costs and attorney’s fees to the Lens because he said the city’s delays “caused litigation to become much more complex than it needed to be.”

Sternberg was pleased with Friday’s ruling.

“Hopefully they will decide in the future to follow the letter of the law,” Sternberg said.

Beatty agreed.

“As a nonprofit newsroom working in the public interest, we believe this will benefit everyone making requests for public records, particularly those in the community without the resources to file a lawsuit to simply enforce the law.”

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...