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.”
MAY 24 Blogger Robert Mann posts this entry about the Baton Rouge Chamber's recent report on Louisiana's higher education system. It's critical to economic development, and yet our system is facing a "funding crisis" with no way to resolve it, the report says. The Chamber says control of tuition and fees must be returned to the higher ed governing boards.
MAY 24 Here's a NBC33 story about Tyrann Mathieu. He has signed with the Arizona Cardinals, inking a $3 million, four-year deal. He gets a signing bonus of $265K, but gets another, larger bonus if he doesn't get cut from the team for doing drugs. The deal reportedly includes mandatory tests and meetings for the player.
MAY 24 Jarvis DeBerry posts here about the redonkulus rhetoric that would have us believe NOLA is a safe city with a murder problem. Maybe the city's crime stats don't compare with its murder stats because you can't manipulate a murder, he says: a dead body's a dead body. It just doesn't make sense, he says, and his readers agree: a poll asks if they believe the city is safe, and more than 90 percent say no.
MAY 24 Jindal administration officials announced Thursday that the privatization of public health care is going to cost a lot more than they budgeted for, the Advocate reports here. "I'm so surprised," said no one. Anywhere. The cost they're projecting now is more than $1 billion - a lot more than the $626 million budgeted for it. And, it's more than it cost the state to operate those hospitals. So why are we doing this again?
MAY 24 Blogger CB Forgotston ridicules the recent PR campaign by the state GOP in the wake of a legislative auditor's request to both major parties. The GOP (apparently unaware that the Dems got the same request) started yammering about being targeted because it had "killed" a tax increase. CB finds that laughable, but it's also pretty funny that the GOP was comparing this episode to the IRS scandal (Because the President has so much to do with our state auditor. Right?).
MAY 24 Politico details some recent fund-raising efforts by Sen. David Vitter, which have raised the question of his future political plans. This time, it is a $5,000 per head "bayou weekend" that includes "Cajun cooking" and an all-caps "alligator hunt," the story reports. Funds raised go to a super PAC that can spend money to support Vitter in federal or state races, the story points out.
MAY 24 The pink building on Royal in the quarter was sold at a sheriff's sale Thursday, this Picayune story reports. An injunction that would have halted the sale wasn't enforced because the family failed to post a $150,000 bond, the story reports. So the owner of the mortgages on the building bought it, for nearly $7 million. Now the feuding family will have to negotiate with that company to get a lease on the building that has housed their business for close to 60 years.
MAY 23 This post in Louisiana Voice tells us about a bill by a Winnsboro lege that would require all public high school students to take at least one Course Choice online class in order to graduate. (What?) Blogger Tom Aswell says it's a monument to "waste and corruption," especially in light of the problems he's exposed with the program in recent weeks. Idaho had a similar program, but voters removed it by a 2-1 margin, Aswell says.
There will soon be a whole lot of shakin’ going on at Benny’s Sportshack Supplement Depot, a new concept by Opelousas native Benny Nele. Located at 2002 Johnston St., the supplement shop, smoothie bar and café, featuring hot off the press paninis and wraps, plans to open in late May.
Philip deMahy Sr., a once respected New Iberia ad exec, was sentenced May 2 to spend the next two years (he faced up to 100 years) in a state penitentiary after state and federal investigators found dozens of images depicting children engaged in lewd sexual acts on his personal computer.