The city of New Orleans has dropped its appeal of a ruling that it violated The Lens’ constitutional right to examine public records. In exchange, The Lens has agreed to waive its claim to $2,500 in attorney’s fees awarded by a judge.
The agreement leaves in place Orleans Civil District Judge Kern Reese’s ruling that the city violated The Lens’ rights by failing to follow the Louisiana Public Records law.
Lens attorney Scott Sternberg, of Sternberg, Naccari & White, said the money was not as important as the principle of the case.
“We were able to save the expense of the appeal and vindicate the judge’s ruling that the city was taking too long to produce these records and wouldn’t give us an estimate as to when we’d get them,” Sternberg said.
However, city spokeswoman Erin Burns said the city maintains it did comply with the law, but further litigation was unnecessary because the city implemented a new online system for requesting public records.
The system “allows the City to provide requesters with information about average response times and offer a number of other features that makes the process of public records requests more transparent,” Burns said.
The prolonged court battle may soon be over. In May 2015, The Lens sued the city and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, arguing the city habitually failed to provide public records within the legally required timeframe.
The suit cited several instances in which the city had failed to provide records, and asked the judge to order the city to hand them over.
State law requires records to be produced immediately if they are not in use, or within three business days if they are. But the law recognizes that records may contain private information, such as Social Security numbers, that aren’t subject to public disclosure.
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 for any exceptions that apply.
The city’s practice, however, was to send a form letter, typically at the three-day mark, stating that the request was being reviewed. Those letters did not include a timeframe for producing the records.
Days after we filed our lawsuit, the city provided four of the five sets of records we had been waiting on. But the city did not provide the city’s purchasing database, called BuySpeed.
Reese ordered the city to produce the full purchasing database after The Lens and the city failed to reach an agreement on how to deal with private information.
The city appealed that ruling, but the two sides have recently resumed discussions to produce the purchasing database without further litigation. Sternberg said he is optimistic that The Lens and the city will soon have an agreement.
Since our lawsuit, the city has implemented an online platform to handle and track public records requests. The system automatically sets a three-day deadline that city departments can adjust.
Sternberg sees that as progress. “We feel we’ve effected some change because the city has adopted this policy, which we believe was the right thing to do all along.”
Lens Editor Steve Myers said he hopes the ruling conveys the importance of the state Public Records Law to government officials.
“This law is not an afterthought,” he said. “It’s one of the primary ways that citizens keep an eye on how their tax dollars are being spent.”