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Lens lawsuit over city’s purchasing records kicked back for a thorough hearing

A state appeals court has set aside an order compelling New Orleans officials to hand over the city’s purchasing database to The Lens, sending the matter back to the lower court for another hearing.

In March, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese ordered the city to produce its purchasing database immediately. The city appealed the ruling, saying the database contains private information that should be protected.

The city has contended it’s impossible to filter all personal information from the database, so it can’t turn over information without violating privacy laws. The Lens has argued the possibility of personal information  — and the city’s admitted inability to properly administer the data — should not shield the entire public record from view.

After being ordered to turn over the database, the city’s then said in a court briefing that the order was improper because it wasn’t given the chance to remove personal information. In its response, The Lens said the city was allowed to present a written statement from the city’s information-technology director, but the judge didn’t likewise accept written statements from people supporting The Lens’ position.

Last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that Reese failed to properly hold a hearing at which each side could present all evidence. Though Reese did have a hearing, he didn’t admit the three affidavits offered by Lens attorney Scott Sternberg into evidence.

“Thus, the trial court did not consider the information contained therein prior to ordering the release of the ‘complete’ database,” the court wrote.

The Lens will now have the chance to present more evidence to a judge who already ruled in its favor.

Sternberg, of Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer, said he respects the court’s decision.

“We certainly hope the judge upholds his earlier ruling that the city has to turn over this database,” he said.

The city’s public-relations office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Lens sued the city and Mayor Mitch Landrieu in May 2015, arguing the city habitually failed to fulfill public records requests in the legally required timeframe.

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

Instead, the city responded to requests with a form letter, typically after three days, stating that the records were being reviewed to see what was public and what was not. It did not tell the requestor when the documents would be ready, as required by law.

In the examples cited by The Lens in its lawsuit, the city had taken up to four months to provide records.

The purchasing database, called BuySpeed, was one of the records sought by The Lens. Reese ordered the two sides to work together to produce it, but those talks failed.

So Reese ordered the city to provide the entire database. That ruling was put on hold while the city appealed.

Separately, Reese found in July that the city had violated The Lens’ constitutional right to view public records and respond within the time required by state law.  The city has appealed that ruling, too.

This summer, the city started using an online platform called NextRequest to manage requests for public records. The system automatically sets deadline of three days to respond deadline, but that can be extended by the department responding to the request.

The Lens and the city will have to appear before Reese again. A date for that hearing has not been set.
“We think we will be vindicated ultimately,” Sternberg said, “because these are textbook public records showing city spending using public dollars.”

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