The Louisiana Press Association is crying foul over a bill working its way through the Legislature that many see as an erosion of the state’s sunshine laws. The Senate & Government Affairs Committee heard Senate Bill 583 this week, but deferred it until next week. SB 583, by Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, would allow committees of four persons or less — specially focused panels appointed by public bodies like city councils and often comprising members of those councils — to hold “informal” meetings in private to discuss public matters, and to schedule such meetings without public notice. Peterson crafted the bill at the request of the New Orleans City Council, which uses four-person committees and which evidently perceives Louisiana’s public meetings law as cumbersome.

The LPA is warning that if passed SB 583 would allow such committees to “just run rough shod over the open meetings law.”

“Mark our words,” the LPA goes on to warn, “if this bill passes four-person or less committees will be formed at every governmental level and public business will all be conducted in private under the guise of information/discussion.”

The bill was amended this week to include the language allow such committees to comprise four members or fewer, although those amendments are not reflected in the version of the bill posted on the Legislature’s Web site.

Linda Lightfoot, the LPA’s freedom of information consultant, wrote the following editorial regarding the matter:
A perceived problem with the way in which the New Orleans City Council committees would like to operate has prompted a bill that would apply to all public bodies in the state and create a serious loophole in the public meetings law.

Under Senate bill 583 by Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, a public body with four or fewer members (most likely a committee or subcommittee) could meet privately, without giving public notice, provided the members don’t make a decision or take a vote.

The seven-member New Orleans City Council operates with four-member committees. They would like to chat among themselves without having to include the public. They say they are afraid that such conversations may violate the current law. Whether casual talks among members would violate the current law is open to question. But the Peterson bill would go way beyond casual chats and it could lead to the creation of four member committees all over the state to take advantage of the loophole.  

If her bill were to become law, a committee with four or fewer members that now must open its meetings to the public, could meet privately and thrash out a controversial item that affects their constituents. Or, a committee could meet and receive proposals from third parties — proposals that could affect constituents’ property rights, business interests, their childrens’ education or an unlimited number of other interests. Whether a vote is taken is not the point. The people would miss the information they need to understand and judge the decisions made by their public officials.

When the controversial item, discussed privately in committee, would come before the full council or school board or other public entity, the public would be deprived of an opportunity to adequately assess the reasons for it or to check out any third parties who stand to benefit from it. When a public body is going to act, people interested in or affected by a proposal, should have adequate time to frame their support or their objections.

Perhaps the most cogent argument against Peterson’s bill is found in the public meetings law itself:  “It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner and that citizens be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.”

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