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 stored.
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 laws.
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 honored.
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.
"None of this is fair or in keeping with what's established as law," Sternberg added.
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.”