Last week was "Sunshine Week," a time for those who care about open government to celebrate and agitate for more transparency in officialdom. Considering recent events, our city could be a case study in what goes right — and wrong — in the arena of official transparency.
We all know what has gone wrong: Mayor Ray Nagin allowed (or caused) the deletion of thousands of public records in the form of his 2008 emails and daily calendar entries; city Sanitation Director Veronica White ignored important city protocols (put in place by Nagin) for the handling of public records requests; and Nagin has turned a tug-o-war with the City Council over the state Open Meetings Law and professional services contracts into a race war.
Some things have gone right. For starters, two judges at Civil District Court reminded everyone that the rule of law still means something. Judge Rose Ledet slapped Nagin and City Attorney Penya Moses-Fields with individual fines for failing to respond to bona fide public records requests from WWL-TV reporter Lee Zurik. She also excoriated them for an "unreasonable and arbitrary [and] flagrant violation of the law they have been sworn to uphold." By the way, that law — the Louisiana Public Records Act — carries criminal penalties.
Are you paying attention, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro?
In another public records case, Judge Lloyd Medley upheld two important tenets of the Public Records Law — attorney Tracie Washington's right to view City Council (and other official) emails that are not privileged, and the Council's right (as specifically set forth in the law) to withhold privileged communications from public view. Medley has ordered Washington to keep a lid on all the emails until council members have had a chance to review them and assert any legal privileges they may have. Medley will then determine if any of those assertions have merit.
On yet another transparency front, the city Office of Inspector General released a scathing report exposing insider deals in the city's crime camera contracting process, and the Nagin Administration released a study of its own (done by an outside firm) exposing some of the same irregularities. The OIG study is more comprehensive, and critics of the Nagin Administration suspect that its report is an attempt to make former city technology officer Anthony Jones the fall guy in the crime camera fiasco (while shielding mayoral pal Greg Meffert, the administration's first technology maven). At a minimum, the administration's report supports much of the OIG report.
Here's the really good news: Last week the feds seized the computers of White and Jones. That's where the rubber meets the road on all this talk about transparency. It's not just talk, folks. Without transparency, there is no accountability.
Meanwhile, on another level, Gov. Bobby Jindal (or someone working on his behalf) has removed an important online document that is not a public record, but which the public nonetheless ought to be able to continue to see: his platform from the 2007 campaign. Veteran watchdog and frequent Jindal critic C.B. Forgotston exposed the removal on his blog (http://forgotston.com) last Friday (March 13, coincidentally, the last day of "Sunshine Week"). The Gambit retrieved the materials, and they're available for download at www.blogofneworleans.com.
Forgotston is just one blogger who has made a difference in the war for transparency. There are many others who fight the good fight. Go read them. Get mad about this issue. Make noise about it.
Because the sad truth is, unless we help it, the sun won't shine on its own. To paraphrase Barack Obama, we have to be the sunshine we've been waiting for.