Saturday, May 25, 2024

Bill to let local governments conceal public records gains Louisiana House approval

by BIZ Magazine

Financial and business records would become confidential to attract economic development

BY: WESLEY MULLERLouisiana Illuminator

Legislation to allow local governments conceal public records for economic development reasons advanced Thursday from the Louisiana House of Representatives.

House Bill 461, sponsored by Rep. Steven Jackson, D-Shreveport, passed in a 79-18 vote and will head to the Senate for consideration.

The bill would allow a city mayor, parish president or local government executive to declare any records confidential if they determine their public release “would have a detrimental effect” on an active business negotiation. It would also allow the company or person negotiating with the government to request confidentiality.

The secrecy would extend to “records of expenses of the local government pertaining to the negotiation.” Local governments would be required to publish a notice online with general information about each negotiation, but the notice would not have to include the name of the company, the dollar amounts being negotiated, the prospective project site and other details.

The details would only be made public when the local government declares that negotiations have ended or after two years, whichever comes first.

Consideration of the bill came at the end of Thursday afternoon’s floor proceedings, drawing no questions, discussion or debate. Lawmakers’ lack of engagement on the measure mirrored a House and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on the bill last week where they asked few questions before advancing it without objection.

Jackson told the committee he sponsored the bill because when he served on a local government board, consultants from out-of-state jurisdictions would file public records requests to find out what public incentives were being offered to a business. The consultants would then use the information for competitive purposes or to lure the project away.

Debate during last week’s hearing came from First Amendment attorney Scott Sternberg, who represents the Louisiana Press Association in opposition to the bill.

Sternberg said Jackson’s proposal would let local governments hide any records they want simply by claiming they are related to economic development. There is an economic development angle to nearly everything a parish council or a school board does, including hiring companies to pave roads or signing bus contracts, Sternberg said.

Jackson disagreed, saying the intent of the bill is not to let local governments hide those kinds of regular business records. Rather, the measure would provide confidentiality for records related to large projects that bring jobs to a parish or city, Jackson said.

About five years ago, the Legislature enacted a similar bill that allows port commissions to keep their records for economic development reasons out of the public’s reach. Since then, it has become very difficult to get any records from the ports because they now claim everything is related to economic development, Sternberg said. He expects local governments will simply follow suit if Jackson’s bill becomes law.

Public access to government records is a cornerstone of a transparent democracy. Public records have allowed investigative journalists and community watchdog groups to expose hazards, government corruption, inaction and other missteps. All states and the federal government have some version of a “sunshine” law for records.

State lawmakers have gradually chipped away at Louisiana’s Public Records Law, changing it dozens of times to revoke public access to many different categories of government records since the law was enacted in 1940.

The Legislature is currently weighing a number of such bills, most notably a measure from Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Ville Platte, that would adopt an extensively broad exemption to the Public Records Law for any documents that are “part of a process by which governmental decisions and policies are formulated.”

On Wednesday, the House approved a bill by Rep. Les Farnum, R-Sulphur, that initially would have repealed a provision in present law that makes public officials personally liable for arbitrarily and capriciously withholding records or failing to respond to a public records request.

During House floor debate Wednesday, Farnum said most public officials affected by that provision “are probably very low-paid employees just doing what they’re told to do.”

Other lawmakers pointed out that without personal liability, a government official would have little reason to produce a public record.

The discussion led to a compromise in which Farnum amended his bill so that it would waive liability for a “representative of a public official or head of a public body” who is “specifically authorized by the custodian to respond” to a public records request.

Farnum’s bill is now pending Senate consideration.

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