NEW ORLEANS – A appeals court has set aside a lower
court’s order requiring New Orleans lawmakers to make the city’s purchasing
database available for scrutiny to journalists with The Lens.
According to a Dec. 21 article on thelensnola.org, the ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal paves the way for the case to return to a lower court’s
jurisdiction for a new hearing. Previously, Orleans Civil District
Court Judge Kern Reese ruled that The Lens should have immediate
access to the city’s BuySpeed database where all such data is
Arguing that much of that information is private and should be
protected, the city appealed, insisting that it was virtually
impossible for staffers to parcel through all the data and pull out
what is safe to be released and not in violation of various privacy
The Lens countered by asserting the city’s admitted inability to
properly administer the data should not be considered justification
for keeping the entire public record from view.
The appeals court said Reese did not have a proper hearing that allowed both sides to present all their evidence.
All the legal wrangling now means the case will again go before
Reese, allowing representatives from both sides to present
even more evidence supportive of their position when they next stand
before the judge.
“We think that Judge Reese is a fair and thorough judge, and our
hope is that once he sees and hears even more of our evidence as to
why this database should be turned over he will again side in our
favor,” Lens attorney Scott Sternberg of the firm Baldwin Haspel
Burke and Mayer told The Louisiana Record. “We think
there is a record of each and every invoice and purchase the city has
made that is stored within that data.”
Naming New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu as a defendant, The Lens
first moved to file suit back in May 2015, alleging the city
routinely neglects to fulfill public-information records requests
within the legally allotted time frame.
Currently, public-records officials are mandated to produce
requested public information within three business days of a request,
or at least respond with a letter detailing why there might be a
delay that includes an estimation of when the request might be
Of note, Landrieu's predecessor, former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, is serving a 10-year prison sentence stemming from a public corruption scandal that included questionable purchases from city vendors who provided kickbacks to a company owned by Nagin's family. The Nagin administration was renowned for limiting access to public records during its tenure.
In its petition, Lens officials charged not only has the city
gotten in the habit of taking as long as four months to address
requests, but they also often responded in the manner of a form
letter that simply stated the records were being reviewed to see what
was public and what was not.
It’s also alleged that the response also failed to provide an
estimate for when the request might be filled as mandated by law.
of this is fair or in keeping with what's established as law,"
In a separate matter, Reese also ruled back in July that the city
had violated the website’s constitutional right to view public
records within the time outlined by state law.
Beyond also appealing that ruling, earlier this year city
officials commenced using an online platform known as NextRequest to
manage all public-records requests. The system also
automatically sets a deadline of three days for a response, though
such scenarios can easily be manipulated by actions as generic as the
system generating a general response.
“We’re a nonprofit
newsroom, not in the business of going to court to get things done,”
Sternberg said. “But we care deeply about the open government and
transparency, and now here we are. We think we will be vindicated
ultimately because these are textbook public records showing city
spending using public dollars.”