The public should have access to emails about the 2010 Jefferson Parish School Board elections that were sent and received by the former director of the parish’s economic development agency, the state Supreme Court decided last week, overturning an appellate court’s ruling.
The emails in question — more than 100 of which were reviewed by the court — were exchanged among former Jefferson Economic Development Commission Director Lucien Gunter and a group of parish business leaders who were campaigning on behalf of a slate of School Board candidates opposed to the teachers union.
Prominent businessman Henry Shane was among those exchanging emails with Gunter.
Two years later, auditors concluded that Gunter — who retired from his post shortly thereafter — had possibly violated state ethics laws by using his JEDCO email account for political activity.
The New Orleans Advocate and nola.com requested those emails from the parish government in late 2012, but Shane sued both the parish and JEDCO to prevent their release, arguing that the exchanges between him and Gunter involved two private organizations, the Jefferson Business Council and the Committee for a Better Jefferson.
Judge Glenn Ansardi of the 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna ruled in 2013 that the emails were public records and should be released as long as certain information of private citizens was redacted.
State 5th Circuit Court of Appeal Judges Stephen Windhorst, Robert Murphy and Robert Chaisson sided with Shane last year, reversing Ansardi. But the state Supreme Court decided that the appellate panel’s ruling was erroneous and that the content of a message sent over a government employee’s email address does not matter when considering if it is public under Louisiana law. The court’s opinion was written by Justice Jefferson Hughes III.
“I believe the public’s right to discover what public employees are doing during the workday, in the workplace, using resources procured by public funds, is paramount and trumps (Shane’s) individual interests in this case,” Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote in a concurring opinion.
The Supreme Court’s ruling means the emails may be released to the public after being redacted where appropriate.
The School Board races mentioned in the emails saw four incumbents seen as friendly to the teachers union fall to challengers backed by the parish’s business community. In 2014, union-backed candidates reclaimed a majority on the nine-member School Board.