Is a recent legal action by a prosecutor in St. John the Baptist Parish a sign that officials are going to get more serious about Open Records Law violations?
A lot of public officials take a nonchalant view of what the Open Records and Open Meetings laws require.
They don’t reply in a timely manner to records requests and often close meetings without regard to what the law actually allows to be closed.
But last week, Keith Green Jr., an assistant district attorney in St. John, filed a suit alleging an Open Records violation.
Let’s not be mistaken, Green was acting as a private citizen, not as an employee of the office of St. John District Attorney Bridget Dinvaut.
But might we hope that the attitude crosses over to his official duties and that open-government fever spreads to officials all across Louisiana?
Well, that might be too much to expect.
Green sued for copies of a recall petition. Under state law, such petitions become public records the very moment the first person signs it.
Green hasn’t said why he wants to see the petition.
He doesn’t have to. No one who requests a public record has to say why he wants it, and the people who keep the records are forbidden to ask why.
Unfortunately, that’s another provision of the Open Records Law that is often violated.
But surely we can figure out Green’s interest in the petition. The group that’s passing it around, the Committee to Recall District Attorney Bridget Dinvaut, wants to kick his boss out of office.
They’re probably not even close to having a quarter of the nearly 10,000 signatures they need to get by early August to bring about a recall election.
But whatever signatures they have are public record, and Green wants to see them.
As a newspaperman, I can’t in good faith argue for reducing the number of documents subject to Open Records requirements. But Green’s lawsuit brings to light how strange this provision of state law is.
First, it says that the chairman of a recall committee is the “custodian” of that record.
In other words, a private citizen is made subject to regulations that usually apply to public employees, often a city or parish clerk or similar position.
Making the petitions public records puts a peculiar burden on recall committees.
Keep in mind that various copies of signed petitions may be in the hands of several people who are out and about trying to get more signatures.
If someone makes a public records request for the petitions, that means they have to all be brought together in one place so the person who made the request can see them.
A recall committee has 180 days to get the signatures of one-third of the voters in the affected jurisdiction, so multiple public records requests could wreak havoc on such a campaign.
Also, and perhaps most significantly, voters don’t want to attack a powerful public figure unless they have some realistic hope of success. If somebody can look at a recall petition before it’s officially filed, voters might be reluctant to sign on early, fearing they may be targeted for retribution if the petition doesn’t get enough signatures for the recall.
I’m not saying Green filed his request to intimidate opponents of his boss.
But his action has drawn attention to the law, and it almost looks like legislators wrote it in a way to make it extremely hard to recall a public official.
Politicians looking out for other politicians, in other words.
Louisiana lawmakers couldn’t possibly be that crass, could they?
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.