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PAR Says Scrap Records Exception for Governor, Start Over

It is time to end the broad exception from public records laws that Louisiana grants to the governor’s office. A limited exception that would shield from public view only the records directly in the custody of the governor, his chief of staff and his executive counsel should replace the current exception that covers records in more than 60 offices, divisions, boards and commissions under the governor’s office.

One proposal that would have accomplished this was withdrawn in the first special legislative session this year, was resubmitted for the current regular session and was again withdrawn prior to consideration. The governor’s resistance to expanding transparency in offices under his control contradicts his other efforts to open the business of government to public view.

The state’s current public records law shields records in the governor’s office to an extraordinary degree compared to other states. 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.

Two other bills still under consideration by the Legislature are being touted as efforts to trim the governor’s broad exception from the public records law. While both SB629 and HB1100 would make some additional records available, neither goes far enough to protect the public interest. Both of the proposed laws would continue to protect documents under the custody of the governor’s press secretary, legislative director, director of boards and commissions, and other officials on the governor’s executive staff. Both bills would also continue to keep private all records in the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and the state Military Department. Such broad protection offers an extraordinary and unwarranted level of privacy to those public offices. In addition, SB629 would grant new protections to certain records currently considered public. For example, it would shield any correspondence, including e-mail, from any source addressed to individual legislators.

Current law allows certain records, no matter where they are housed, to be shielded from public view in order to protect the security of citizens, personal privacy rights and proprietary information of private businesses. These content-based exceptions apply to all Louisiana public records and should be continued.

It is reasonable to allow the governor to keep private his direct communications with his executive counsel and chief of staff. Beyond that, a record should only be shielded if it fits a narrowly crafted exemption based on the record’s content rather than custodian. PAR maintains its longstanding recommendation that the general exception to public records laws for the office of the governor should be replaced with a very narrow exception that values the public’s right to know more than the governor’s right to conduct the state’s business privately.

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