Lawyers in Calcasieu weigh in on ITEP
‘Tax authority is subject to open meetings law’
Decisions regarding Calcasieu’s industrial tax exemption applications are made with the advisory assistance of members of the Calcasieu Parish Taxing Authority. Designees from the School Board, Police Jury, Sheriff’s Office and Southwest Economic Development Alliance meet privately to weigh the substance, overall viability and economic impact of a potential project and then provide each entity with a uniform recommendation on whether to confirm or deny an application.
Two area attorneys, however, said that as citizens of a democratic society there are clear legal implications regarding the public’s right to be informed during that initial process.
“When you have a right to know, it’s not a right you should have to explain,” attorney Adam Johnson of The Johnson Firm said. “The government’s authority arrives from the consent of the governed. Anytime I feel like we’re not consenting fully or our consent is not fully informed, then we have a right to take issue.”
Driftwood LNG’s billion dollar exemption passed through public bodies in November with limited information divulged to elected officials and even less information to the general public.
“I have my opinion about the ultimate decision, but what is clear is that process lacked transparency and the public was kept in the dark,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the purpose of open meetings law is based entirely on the legal guarantee the public has a right to the information pertaining to the governmental decisions that directly affect them.
The Louisiana constitutional laws that outline the open meetings law are clear that their existence is not a luxury to be enjoyed only when convenient, but rather, a right to be expected and broadly applied, Johnson said.
Open meetings law is designed for the protection of the public. The whole purpose of open meetings law is to allow citizens to interact with public groups; therefore, the open meetings law is to be liberally construed in favor of the public’s right to know, Johnson said.
Regardless of the Calcasieu Parish Taxing Authority’s claim it is within its right given the competitive nature of industrial projects, Johnson said one option being considered is to file a petition with the court to declare whether the taxing authority is subject to open meetings law.
Citing a 2014 attorney general opinion that outlines a three-point test to determine if an entity is subject to open meetings law, Johnson said, based on such factors he thinks “the tax authority is subject to open meetings law.”
He said he hopes the decision to provide greater transparency will not have to reach the courts because governmental entities can request an official opinion from the state’s Attorney General’s office.
“Given the level of public feedback, they can ask if what they’re doing is legal or whether they’re subject to open meetings law,” he said. “This is extremely common for government entities to do.”
Understanding the corporate interests at stake, Johnson said he believes there can be a balance struck between remaining competitive and also operating within the legal bounds of open meeting law.
“I think as citizens that is our right,” he said. “We have a right to be informed and we don’t have to defend that right. That’s something that those in government should be catering to.”
Ron Richard of Richard Law Firm agreed.
“I’m not against the concept. What I want is all the information,” he said. “Make sure my police juror, school board member, (Calcasieu Parish Sheriff Tony) Mancuso, makes sure they have it! Then make sure the public gets a real shot at hearing and seeing what it is.”
To continue the current model or, in the other extreme, to dissolve completely would be a direct disservice to purpose of Governor John Bel Edward’s 2016 executive order, Richard said.
“John Bel has been unabashedly cool with power to the people. It was the right idea,” he said. “To abdicate all together and let Baton Rouge alone decide would be a real concern. If you don’t have it locally, who can you gripe to? It’s not the same as us showing up to the police jury saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’ “
Richard said he believes the “best option” for Calcasieu citizens would be for publicly elected officials to demand transparency.
If local politicians truly “step up” in such a fashion, Richard said he will give a $10,000 scholarship to any LaGrange High School senior committed to governmental studies in college.