There's a perception among some in government that only the news media -- not ordinary citizens -- care much about open meetings laws, public records and the whole notion of freedom of information. That's bunk.
Like many reporters and editors, I get lots of mail from ordinary citizens complaining about their access to government records being cut off or stonewalled -- despite laws to the contrary. In fact, Louisiana has some pretty good public records and open meetings laws. What we don't have is a lot of compliance by some in public office.
Somebody's about to do something about that.
A coalition of government watchdog groups, attorneys, ordinary citizens and news media executives has come together to preserve and expand citizens' access to government and public records under the Freedom of Information Act and the Louisiana "sunshine" laws.
The Louisiana Coalition for Open Government -- dubbed "LaCOG" by some of its founders -- will be affiliated with the National Freedom of Information Committee. LaCOG has already been notified of a $10,000 NFOIC grant to help the group incorporate as a non-profit, charitable organization and set up shop -- including a citizens' hotline to receive gripes, questions and concerns.
I'm proud that I was among those who met last week to organize the group, but the real credit goes to Loyola Communications Professor Sherry Lee Alexander. She has reported extensively on the subject of open government (or lack thereof) for trade journals as well as the mainstream press. She got the idea for LaCOG while covering former Gov. Edwin Edwards' federal trials in Baton Rouge last year. During those trials, judges cut off or severely limited media and citizen access to the judicial process and records of the trial.
Other recent examples of limiting citizens' access to government records include proposals to exempt legislators' email from the state public records law and, closer to home, requiring opponents of Mayor Marc Morial's proposed charter change pay 50 cents a page to verify signatures on referendum petitions.
The list goes on and on. Worst of all, ordinary citizens almost daily are deprived of complete access to public records. Often they don't know where to turn -- which is what some in government are counting on.
The truth is, failure to turn over a public record within three days is a criminal offense in Louisiana. First-time violators can be fined $100 to $1,000 or imprisoned from one to six months. Subsequent convictions carry fines of $250 to $2,500 or jail time of two to six months -- or both. The law also imposes civil fines, including award of attorneys' fees. LaCOG will take offenders to court when necessary.
State law defines a public record as anything "having been used, being in use or prepared" for use in the conduct of public business. There are some necessary exemptions, but generally the law recognizes that public documents contain the public's business, so the public has a right to see them.
Although several news executives from across the state are among LaCOG's founding board members, the group also includes representatives from the Public Affairs Research Council, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Council for a Better Louisiana and several attorneys with expertise in open government issues. This group will have clout, but our aim is for LaCOG to be a citizens group, because open government is everybody's business.
"We have seen a number of freedom-of-information issues arise in Louisiana in just the past year," said Alexander. "Now there is new hope for those who are concerned about access to government and records as guaranteed to all citizens by the First Amendment."
Among LaCOG's first priorities will be educating citizens and elected officials about the importance and scope of state and federal "open government" laws and public records acts.
Most of all, we hope to let people know that government's business is their business -- and we want those in government to know that we in the press aren't the only ones who feel that way.