Saturday, July 13, 2024

Gov. Landry vetoes bill seeking to expand access to public employee records

by BIZ Magazine

BY: PIPER HUTCHINSON – Louisiana Illuminator

Clouds pass over Tiger Stadium on Monday, March 20, 2023, on LSU’s campus in Baton Rouge, La. (Matthew Perschall for Louisiana Illuminator)

Gov. Jeff Landry vetoed a bill that would have made it easier for the public to access personnel records of public employees.

House Bill 116 by Rep. Dixon McMakin, R-Baton Rouge, aimed to clarify state public records law as it relates to personnel records of public employees, which are commonly withheld from public view. McMakin filed his proposal to make it easier to access records related to employee misconduct.

His bill would have prohibited public records custodians from solely using a court case as the reason for denying a request.

That provision would have prevented records custodians from citing the 2022 court case McMakin v. LSU as the sole reason for denying a record. LSU commonly cites the 2022 court case, in which McMakin was the plaintiff, for denying access to investigations into employee wrongdoing.

Landry raised concerns with this provision in his veto message but committed to working with McMakin, an ally, on the bill in the future. Read the full veto message below.

“There are some concerns that we need to look at it more broadly, to make sure that we still have all the protections in place that should be there for public employees to feel secure in the part of their records that are not meant for the public,” McMakin said. “And so that’s what we’re gonna work on in the future, just tightening up the language.”

Public records laws protect the public’s right to know what governments are doing. They’re part of “sunshine” laws that every state and the federal government has put in place to ensure transparency.

McMakin’s bill would have preserved public records exemptions to personal identifying information such as an employee’s personal phone number or address.

McMakin v. LSU was one such quest for information. In that case, McMakin sued for records related to Donald Abels, a former LSU Greek Life Official accused of setting up fake social media profiles to entrap fraternity recruits he allegedly solicited to commit crimes.

Landry previously sued a reporter for The Advocate for seeking records related to the alleged sexual misconduct of an employee in the Attorney General’s office. While he lost that lawsuit, The Advocate was unable to obtain all of the records it sought.

Proponents of expanded public records access argue the public should have access to these records.

“The public has a right to access records of government business and taxpayer expenditures. These records allow citizens to access information that is vital to accountability and oversight, both of which help prevent abuse of power and potential corruption,” Melia Cerrato, Sunshine Legal Fellow at Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic, said in a statement to the Illuminator when the bill was first filed. “Public records about employees’ conduct and the government’s response are matters of significant public importance.”

McMakin’s bill was unique in the regular session in that it aimed to expand public records access rather than restrict it. While the Legislature has tightened Louisiana’s public records law regularly since it was created in 1960, expanding access is rare.

The governor supported a number of bills to greatly restrict public records access, though the most extreme of these fell short. Landry did sign a law that would restrict access to records from his office to Louisiana residents and another that would allow local governments to withhold economic development records.

Landry did sign another of McMakin’s bills that prohibits Louisiana colleges and universities from charging student-funded and -operated media outlets affiliated with the school for public records requests. It goes into effect Aug. 1.

The Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic provides legal guidance to the Louisiana Illuminator.

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