Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Written by Walter Pierce

Senate Bill 583 could shield government in Louisiana from sunshine.

I was a little miffed with the Louisiana Press Association a few weeks ago upon learning that a room-temperature dollop of journalistic pap headlined “The Dirty Secret of Laundry” — it was, literally, tips on washing your clothes! — took top honors in the investigative reporting competition among weekly newspapers at the annual LPA awards luncheon, besting our second-place entry probing the Jennings serial killings.

Upon further reflection, I had to let the LPA off the hook; a member of the Florida Press Association judged the entries. Evidently the Sunshine State has issues with its spin cycle.

Speaking of sunshine, I was reminded last week why the LPA, notwithstanding its perennially successful lobbying campaign to preserve the law requiring that notices of government meetings be published at public expense in newspapers — a law that fills the coffers of small-town papers and underwrites the bottom lines of many others, and a law that I’m convinced is no longer a necessity in an age when virtually every engaged citizen who is not a nonagenarian has access to the World Wide Web — still serves a vital role in our state’s civic life. I apologize for that 87-word sentence; a cheap thrill for an English major. I think I pulled it off.

The LPA shot up flares over Senate Bill 583 by New Orleans Democrat Karen Carter Peterson revising the state’s open meetings law. Currently, the law is simply simple: Public bodies such as city councils and school boards, and committees stemming therefrom, must conduct their meetings before the public. But if Peterson’s revision flies, the public meetings law “shall not apply to any gathering of members of a municipal governing authority or parish governing authority at which only presentations are made to members of the governing authority, or at which matters of public policy are discussed with the chief executive officer of the municipality or parish, if no vote or other action, including formal or informal polling of members, is taken,” so long as that governing authority is four members or fewer, i.e., a committee.

The LPA correctly sees this as a Trojan horse, arguing in an e-mail to members that the bill would allow local governments to “just run rough shod over the open meetings law,” adding, “[I]f 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.”

Peterson is sponsoring the bill at the behest of the New Orleans City Council, which uses four-person committees, and the bill might simply be an innocuous attempt to expedite that council’s affairs. But the LPA is not being alarmist in its alarm.

Granted, the bill forbids these gatherings from voting on matters they discuss, but it doesn’t forbid them from deliberating and making up their minds on how they will vote. I would wager that for a majority of governing authorities in Louisiana, four is a majority. Nor does it forbid third parties — a lobbyist or a contractor seeking to influence government — from consulting with these committees or chief elected officers away from the public eye. In fact, it implicitly countenances such “presentations.” What it does prevent is voters being privy to the discussion and gaining a better understanding of the issue at hand. That puts John Q. at a disadvantage when these matters move from the board room to the council chamber.

I’m loath to paraphrase a founding father in such a trifling forum, but Jefferson was right: The electorate can’t truly approve what it doesn’t understand.

The bill doesn’t forbid third parties — a lobbyist or a contractor seeking to influence government — from consulting with these committees or chief elected officers away from the public eye. In fact, it implicitly countenances such “presentations.”

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