Â The project relies on a quirky index reminiscent of the Weather Channel, with bright sunshine on one end of the spectrum (completely open) and a dark sky on the other (completely closed). Access to the Legislature is well above average, even though the constitutional provision calling for such openness does not directly identify the body by name. Availability of election records pulled from state voting machines is another area that scored high on the index. Louisiana falls largely in the middle in most categories, although a few ' children's records for medical examiners, certain computer records, gubernatorial documents ' are second-to-last on the index, dubbed as "nearly dark."
There are always a dozen or more bills filed in every regular session of the Legislature that seek to chip away at public access to government documents. Barry Erwin, president of a Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit that monitors the activities of state government, says that persistence may be more dangerous than the actual intent of the bills.
"It is very disconcerting," Erwin says. "It seems there is always an effort to create an exemption or find a loophole. Some years are worse than others, and you never know what's going to come up. They just keep coming back again and again. The good news, though, is that most of these bad bills usually get killed."
Baton Rouge Rep. William Daniel was pushing legislation that would have excluded law enforcement personnel records from public view, including disciplinary actions, but he pulled it from consideration in the face of opposition from the Louisiana Press Association and others.
"I'm not going anywhere with that bill," Daniel confirms, making this the second consecutive year he has personally introduced and then withdrawn the concept.
As one door closes, however, another opens. Rep. Clo Fontenot, a Livingston Parish Republican, has a bill that would expunge certain files related to internal police department investigations. If an officer is accused of a wrongdoing, then later found innocent, the charge could be removed from the officer's jacket. "But if the accusations are true, they stay in the record," Fontenot says.
Â Not only would the information be erased from documents available to the public for viewing, it would also be shielded from superiors and future employers.
Â On the state level, the Insurance Department wants to close off certain public records connected to companies that do business with the Louisiana Casualty and Surety Rating Commission. The measure by New Orleans Democratic Rep. Karen Carter, a New Orleans Democrat, identifies "biographical information" as being exempt from sunshine laws but offers no definition of the term.
Additionally, the Department of Transportation and Development has a set of bills filed for the session that would prohibit preconstruction estimates from being viewed by the public until all bids on the project are received.
Some of these concepts might not look like much on the surface, but Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says they set a dangerous precedent if approved and applied the wrong way.Â
"It all depends on the legislative intent, but any time an exception is being made to government operating in the open, that should immediately raise questions," Cook says. "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and it pays to be vigilant any time the Legislature is in session."
On the flip side, a few current bills aim to further open up government to public inspection ' but aren't gaining much traction. A bill that would have made public certain documents in the governor's office ' just like the way all other state agencies are treated ' met a quiet defeat earlier this month.
Terry Ryder, executive counsel to Gov. Kathleen Blanco, rattles off a number of reasons that helped lawmakers torpedo the proposal. Information shared in the executive branch is sensitive, he tells them, and answering public requests of that nature would be too time-consuming for the staff. But most of all, the governor's ability to receive information freely would be obstructed.Â Â
Rep. Mert Smiley, a Republican from Port Vincent, notes an irony in the administration's opposition. He recalls how Blanco was elected as a reformer and how she has made ethics a central platform in nearly every session.
"I couldn't think of any way better to show transparency than this," Smiley says, referring to the defeated legislation.
New Orleans Rep. Peppi Bruneau has filed another version of the bill that would allow Blanco's personal records to remain sealed but open up all other sections of her office.
The ultimate responsibility of keeping an open government resides with the voters, who have the final say in how government should operate. Cook contends it is the only way to ensure accountability.
"Any time the government tries to do business behind closed doors and knock out the sunshine, it is a threat to freedom and democracy and accountability," Cook says. "Never forget: these people work for us and they should answer to us."
An abortion rights organization has filed the first court challenge to a Louisiana law that would require doctors who perform abortions to be able to admit patients to a nearby hospital.
U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister started his sign-up for re-election Friday the same as any other candidate, filling out paperwork and handing over cash to pay his qualifying fee. But he finished it quite differently, doused with ice.
The recent release of Victor White III’s autopsy report could spell trouble, as it tells a much different story of his death than the one told five months ago by the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“Candidates for Congress and members of Congress spend between 30 and 70 percent of their time raising money to get back to Congress or to get their party back into power.”
Over the last four days of the trial against attorney Daniel Stanford, there’s been one notable absence from Judge Elizabeth Foote’s courtroom: attorney Bill Goode.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees and wide receiver Nick Toon are not on the same page yet, and time is running short for Toon to get it right.
U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister started his sign-up for re-election the same as other candidates, filling out paperwork and handing over qualifying money. But he finished it like no other, doused with ice.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
Jell-o sales plummet; Hamas kills suspected informers; bodies arrive in Malaysia and more national and international news for Friday, August 22, 2014.
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Qualifying continues through Friday.
The political tilt of the Senate during President Barack Obama's final two years in office is likely to hinge on a handful of female contenders in tight and costly races.
A former BP executive will be allowed to travel to the United Kingdom later this month while he awaits trial on charges relating to an investigation of the 2010 Gulf oil spill.
Friends and family will celebrate Spider's life in September.
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Jindal privatized nearly all the LSU hospitals without waiting for federal officials to sign off on financing arrangements that rely on millions of federal Medicaid dollars.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and her main Republican challenger, Congressman Bill Cassidy, verbally sparred as they officially signed up on the opening day of qualifying for Louisiana's November election.
Superintendent tells crowd he'd just emerged from a four-hour meeting with the attorney hired to investigate him.
The start of the three-day qualifying period for November’s elections has so far yielded 10 official bids and one new announcement from candidates seeking a seat on the school board.
It’s been just over four months since attorney Barry Domingue committed suicide the morning before he was to stand trial for a second day in the federal Curious Goods case, leaving his fellow attorney/co-defendant Daniel Stanford with a temporary mistrial and awaiting his day in court.
Candidates for Louisiana's Nov. 4 election must officially sign up for the ballot this week.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's effort to derail Louisiana's use of the Common Core education standards was halted Tuesday by a state judge who said the governor's actions were harmful to parents, teachers and students.
New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram isn't letting a humbling start to his pro career lower his opinion of what he can still accomplish in the NFL.
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A Baton Rouge judge issued a temporary restraining order Monday against enforcing a law that prohibits anyone 70 or older from running for justice of the peace or constable.