Jim Beam column: Citizens need public records

Published 6:54 am Saturday, April 27, 2024

When people go into a restaurant and order a meal, do they go into the kitchen to make sure the cook is preparing it well?

No, they don’t, and Republican Gov. Jeff Landry says that is why we don’t need to know how government officials arrived at the decisions they make.

Landry used the restaurant example to defend a bill by state Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, that would allow governments to withhold records on how they make decisions.

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WVUE FOX 8 in New Orleans said those decisions that Landry wants to keep secret include emails, text messages, calendars, or any other record connected to the decision-making process.

In his restaurant example, Landry said, “You don’t want to know how, what the cook put in there, where he got the ingredients, how many people were involved in cooking it, all you care about is a good meal.”

Landry said state citizens aren’t worried about the details and only want elected officials to solve their problems.

The restaurant story is a poor example. People don’t want to watch the cook prepare their meal, but they certainly want to know what their government officials are doing behind the scenes to solve their problems.

Here are two great examples:

Officials with the University of Louisiana System Thursday selected Wade Rousse, a former vice president, as the new McNeese State University president. Under Landry’s example, that’s all he thinks we need to know. Here is how it really happened:

The American Press published a story on April 3 with a headline saying, “Eighteen throw hats in the ring to be McNeese’s next president.” The Page 1 story listed the 18 candidates for the job and information on all of them came from the Presidential Search Committee.

The search committee selected four semi-finalists for the job and that April 5, P-1 story also recapped the background on all four finalists. Rick Gallot, the new president of the UL System, served as chairman of the search committee.

“And then there were two” was the headline on a P-1 story on April 18. The semifinalists visited McNeese’s campus for interviews with faculty and staff, students, alumni, and community members. They had a chance to interact with the two finalists.

All of those events were described in detail in American Press stories throughout the process.

Under Sen. Cloud’s proposed public records bill, the only thing the public would have heard or read about from the education officials would have been the name of the new McNeese president. So don’t tell the citizens of this state that is all they need to know.

Then, there was the opposite situation in Jeff Davis Parish. The Police Jury is trying to hire its first parish administrator and refused to release the names of 15 applicants. The American Press filed a Freedom of Information request last week for a list of the applicants but didn’t get it.

A citizens advisory committee narrowed that list and the Police Jury still refused to release the names of the finalists, citing privacy concerns. However, when people seek a government job, it becomes a public, not a private event.

Had the issue gone to court under existing law, I believe the Police Jury would have been forced to release all of its information about hiring an administrator.

Citizens need to know what their governments are doing or have done behind the scenes. They descended on a Calcasieu Parish School Board meeting recently to complain and ask officials why a decision was made not to close schools after severe weather warnings.

The state Department of Transportation and Development invited the public to comment on its plans for improving safety and traffic flow on Country Club Road in Lake Charles, which at many times is a driver’s nightmare.

A number of knowledgeable officials have said Cloud’s bill is a repeal of the state’s public records law. The decision-making process is critical and people need more than the outcome, which is all Landry wants to give them.

FOX 8 said it asked Landry which records he was specifically concerned about being made public. It got the same reaction Landry gives most people who ask him questions. The TV station said he didn’t answer and walked away.


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