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Saturday, November 22, 2014
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Editorial: Openness can bolster public trust

Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 5:14 PM

A case now meandering the state’s court system again has major implications on a thorny question: Does a public institution have the right to keep secret the applicants for a position at that institution?

In this case, the question revolves around LSU’s search for a new president. The university hired F. King Alexander to replace John Lombardi, whose combative style and outspoken criticism led to his firing by the LSU board.

After a nationwide search, Alexander, the president of California State University in Long Beach, Calif., emerged as the selection committee and board’s pick.

The Advocate of Baton Rouge, in a freedom of information request, asked the board for a list of the 35 semifinalists. When LSU’s board refused the request, the newspaper sued.

State District Court Judge Janice Clark ruled in April that the names of the applicants are public record and ordered LSU to turn them over. The university’s attorneys appealed to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal which upheld Clark’s ruling.

Now the two sides — or more appropriately the attorneys — are arguing over the next course of action.

LSU attorney Jimmy Faircloth claims the university didn’t appeal Clark’s decision. Instead, he contends he wanted the 1st Circuit to take over the case when Clark did not rule on the issue of whether LSU must pay any attorney fees or damages.

The newspaper’s attorney, Lori Mince of New Orleans, said the 1st Circuit denial of LSU’s writ is crystal clear.

“LSU was asking the 1st Circuit to reverse Judge Clark (on the public recorrds issue) and (the 1st Circuit) refused to do so. The 1st Circuit denied those requests,” she said.

Mince said the decision so far means that “public bodies cannot select their leaders in secret.”

Faircloth, so far playing a loser’s hand, appears to be trying to muddy the water. But he and the university have recourse — they can appeal to the state Supreme Court in hopes it overturns the 1st Circuit.

Transparency of applicants for a limelight position at a public institution — in this case the leader of the state’s flagship university — has long been controversial. Those who would like to cloak the process argue that publicizing the names may discourage candidates from applying in the future. Those who embrace openness counter that publicizing the names bolsters the public’s trust that the best applicant available was chosen for the position.

This all may seem like a small tempest. But consider your own point of view if the applicants weren’t for the president’s job at LSU, but for the head football coaching position when Les Miles eventually leaves his helm.

Would you tolerate secrecy in that candidate search?

• • •

This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

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