Government & Politics
 

City of New Orleans appeals ruling that it broke the Public Records Law

The city is appealing a judge’s ruling that it broke the law by failing to properly respond to The Lens’ public records requests for the city’s purchasing database and other public records.

Civil District Judge Kern Reese wrote in a judgment this summer that The Lens’ “rights were violated when the City did not properly and timely respond to the Public Records Requests.” He ordered the city to pay $2,500 in attorney’s fees and to follow the law in the future.

Now the city has appealed to a higher court. Last week, Reese granted the city’s request to suspend his ruling until the appeals process is finished.

The city did not respond to a request for comment.

Lens attorney Scott Sternberg said he believes the ruling will be upheld.

“We think Judge Reese got it right when he ruled that our rights were violated when the city didn’t comply with the clear terms of the Public Records Law,” said Sternberg, with the law firm Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer.

Steve Buttry, a veteran journalist and the director of student media at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, said the appeal is a “stalling tactic, and it’s wasteful of taxpayers’ money.”

“You don’t have to appeal everything,” he said. “Sometimes you’re wrong.”

He said the Public Records Law “is clear, and for good reason” — it deals with “providing information to their taxpayers and holding them accountable.”

The Lens filed a public records request for the purchasing database in January 2015. When the city did not provide it, The Lens sued to get it and other documents.

The Lens asked the judge to rule that the city had habitually failed to follow public records law, noting that over two years, the city hadn’t provided records within the legal timeframe for two thirds of its requests.

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 respond with a letter detailing any exceptions that apply — and there are many.

If the records are not produced immediately, the law requires the public body to provide a reasonable estimate of how long it will take to collect, segregate, examine or review the request.

Instead, the city would respond with a form letter stating that it was dealing with the request and would review the records for any exceptions to the Public Records Law, with no timeframe.

After The Lens sued, the city provided all the records except the purchasing database. City officials said it was impossible to remove all private data, which it is legally obligated to protect.

Reese dealt with the issues in separate hearings, one about the purchasing database and the other about how the city handled public records requests.

He ruled for The Lens in both matters, first in March when he ordered the city to produce the purchasing database immediately and then in July when he decided that the city had failed to follow the law.

The city has appealed his ruling about the purchasing database, too.

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