NEW ORLEANS – The Lens, an award-winning investigative non-profit online news service, is suing the City of New Orleans and Mayor Mitch Landrieu for failing to provide public records that were requested.
The Lens, Charles Maldonado and Abram Handler filed suit against Mitchell J. Landrieu, in his capacity as mayor of the City of New Orleans, and the City of New Orleans in the Orleans Parish Civil District Court on May 12, 2015.
The Lens notes in the lawsuit filing that on multiple occasions the City of New Orleans failed to respond to their requests, at times even taking more than two months to respond.
The Lens Editor Steve Beatty said the city’s noncompliance with public records requests are egregious and well-known.
“The fact is that the city doesn't comply and it's not even a secret. A lot of people are doing things that are time-dependent and we need the information to move ahead, it is imperative that information is received quickly so that our audience can make informed decisions in looking at policy,” he said.
The Lens claim that of more than 50 requests for public records they have made as a part of The Lens' reporting activities, the City has allegedly failed to properly respond to the request within three days in approximately two-thirds of instances. According to the lawsuit, a public records request seeking records related to invoices and payments to and from Archon Information Systems–a city government vendor specializing in tax collection–which was only responded to 17 days after the initial request, is just one of many such examples. The Lens claims that the City habitually refuses to respond to Public Records Requests within the delays allowed by law.
A recent example came following a request for a copy of the BuySpeed database, which tracks the expenditures of City Hall. A representative from The Lens was told in person that this request be honored, but the information never came and the request was denied nearly a month and cited as being “unreasonably burdensome and expensive”. The Lens disagreed with the legitimacy of this argument.
In response to the city’s claim that the requests are too burdensome, Beatty said that it was not a worthy excuse.
“A lot of things they claim are difficult and burdensome are computer data-related, but known to be easy; the city is not technologically up to date,’ he said. “Nothing in the law that says they do not have to do it if it is difficult.”
The plaintiffs seek a ruling from the court acknowledging that the City is in violation of the Public Records Law in failing to respond to the outstanding requests and stipulating that the city be forced to comply with the Public Records Law.
Beatty said access to city records are important as they allow citizens to more closely monitor government actions.
“In things like determining how the city is spending its money, the longer it is before the matter is resolved, the easier it is for the City to look back and say 'that was a long time', the law says it is guaranteed in three days and people need easy and quick access,” he said.
Legal Ethics professor Dane Ciolino, of Loyola University, also gave his take on the case, saying that it is another example of the city “acting as if the law doesn't apply to it.”
Ciolino said the court would likely order the city to act in compliance with the law. However, he is uncertain about what effect that may have.
“They don't pay judgments against it and essentially ignore the authorities,” Ciolino said.
The Lens is represented by Scott L. Sternberg of New Orleans-based Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer LLC.
This case has been assigned to Div. L Judge Kern A. Reese.
Case no. 2015-04547.
Correction: This story was updated on May 27 to reflect that The Lens did not seek "all records in the custody of the Bureau of Accounting, Department of Finance" as previously reported, but a only submitted a FOIA request for a limited number of invoices and payments related to city government vendor Archon Information Systems.