PAR Says Let Sun Shine on Agencies within Governor’s Office
Records held by a long list of agencies within the governor’s office should be subject to the public records law. The state’s “sunshine laws” are the tools that allow citizens to participate in key public decisions and to hold government accountable. The public records and open meetings laws help ensure that actions taken by public officials and employees in managing public funds or protecting the public’s health and safety are transparent and accessible to the public. A House committee will consider HB 1171, a bill that would restore access to a swath of records held by numerous agencies located in the governor’s office that now are closed to public view.
The law currently provides a broad exception for records kept in the governor’s office. Although the law provides access to financial transactions, it shields all other records, including those that give critical insight into the policymaking process of agencies protected by the exemption. Because the exception is so broad, each new agency housed within the governor’s office must specifically be made subject to the public records law. It also creates great inconsistencies in which records are available to the public and which are kept secret. For example, the records of the Louisiana Architects Selection Board are closed while the State Board of Architectural Examiners’ records are subject to public view.
When the exemption for the governor’s office was created, state government was much smaller. Over the years, the government has grown along with the number of state agencies that have been placed, in some cases arbitrarily, within the governor’s office. Although it is the current governor’s policy to make records available for many of those agencies, access to public records should not rest on the viewpoint of the particular officeholder. HB 1171 would open the door to the agencies housed within the governor’s office and also provide access to the many entities created by executive order, regardless of who serves as governor.
A strong public records law saves citizens time and money. Unlike the remedy provided in the open meetings law, citizens are largely left on their own when a public records request is denied. Without the clarification provided by HB 1171, a citizen may be forced to file a lawsuit, which is a costly, time-consuming endeavor, in order to obtain the requested information.
Louisiana is at the bottom of the Citizen Access Project’s rankings on access to records held by the governor’s office. The organization, housed in the Marion Brechner Institute for Open Government at the University of Florida, tracks sunshine laws nationally and rates the states in various categories. HB 1171 would enact meaningful reform that improves transparency in government.