Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory speaks during the opening ceremony for the Veterans Memorial Tuesday, September 6, 2022, at Moncus Park in Lafayette, La.

Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory, fond of saying his administration is transparent, recently enacted a $1 per page fee for the news media and public to obtain public records via email.

Lafayette Consolidated Government now is requiring payment prior to obtaining documents electronically that a month ago were free. It's costing local news organizations and possibly the public hundreds of dollars to obtain records that belong to taxpayers.

This is taking place at a time when Guillory and his administration are facing  scrutiny by the news media and an investigation by the City Council and, according to some reports, the FBI over drainage contracts and other work.

Guillory made it clear Thursday on his weekly KPEL radio talk show that the new electronic public records fee is targeting news outlets.

"I wish every media outlet had to pay $100 a page. You can put me on the record with that. All these media outlets, they pry and pry," Guillory said. "They take our directors away from helping people just to pry and pry and make up things.”

Under the state's public records law, most documents created by local government agencies are public, including emails and contracts. Local governments are allowed to charge reasonable fees to produce print copies of documents which require an employee to run documents through a printer or copying machine. Until recently, most did not charge a fee to copy files from computers and send them to the public or news media via email.

That changed with a recent amendment to the public records law that allows local governments to establish and collect reasonable fees for making copies of public records, "which may include the transmission of electronic copies of public records."

The law doesn't define "reasonable fees." The Acadiana Advocate recently paid LCG $55 for a 55-page document sent electronically, much of it redacted. By comparison, a reporter paid $5 plus 25 cents per page for documents from the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office that were transmitted electronically.

The Current raised the alarm on the new fee this week, reporting that a public records request filed in July for documents related to LCG's beleaguered drainage projects, three of which are tied up in court, would have cost more than $2,000 if the request was made today.

The mayor-president said he doesn't want to charge the general public for records, just the news media.

“For that person in the basement at 3 o'clock in the morning that has nothing better to do than make a blog and wants to take our directors away from digging ditches and paving roads and helping peoples' lives and they want to just get thousands of pages at taxpayers expense," he said. "Yeah, I think they should pay $100 a page.

“We pride ourselves on being transparent," Guillory added. "I don’t think taxpyers should have to fund witch hunt operations for political theater."

The records, Guillory said, are still accessible to anyone who wants to view them in person. State law says the public may view public records for free.

But an Acadiana Advocate reporter recently attempted to view public records at city hall and was told she had to submit a formal public records request. The reporter later asked a legal assistant for LCG about inspecting the records in person to avoid the $1 per page fee and the assistant could not say if or when that would be possible.

Scott Sternberg, an attorney for the Louisiana Press Association and The Acadiana Advocate, said the fees contemplated in the law are limited only to what it costs to make the records available, that is, the costs of making copies, The Current reported. 

The Youngsville City Council approved a resolution at its regular council meeting last week to amend its public records fee schedule to charge $1 per page for digital records.

Guillory, who took office in January 2020, is expected to seek re-election in 2023. He recently disappeared from public view for 21 days, saying  he had checked himself into a rehab facility in Texas for treatment of alcohol abuse and post traumatic stress disorder linked to his military service in Afghanistan. He continued to conduct city-parish business while in the rehab facility.

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