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Don’t exclude citizens from redistricting briefing, PAR says

Legislative committees responsible for redrawing voting districts have announced plans to invoke an exception to Louisiana’s open meetings law and hold a two-day, closed meeting to receive information relative to the law and history of redistricting. Given the significance of the 2010 redistricting cycle for Louisiana and the potential for major shifts of power nationally and within the state, every single meeting on the subject should be open to the public so that the debate can be fully aired.

Louisiana’s open meetings law asserts that the maintenance of democracy depends on public business being performed in an open manner and citizens being advised of the deliberations and decisions that go into policymaking. The law provides a narrow exception to open meetings for informational presentations given to legislators where no vote or other action will be taken, but it is hard to imagine a valid reason for hiding such a meeting behind this exception.

One top legislative official responsible for organizing this private meeting has justified it with the argument that keeping the public and the media out is the only way to enable legislators to speak freely about their questions and concerns. This claim is reminiscent of the argument made during the 2009 regular legislative session to shield certain documents exchanged with the governor’s office. Taking various public deliberations into the backrooms is a dangerous trend that should be stopped.

Redistricting is the decennial process of redrawing states’ congressional and legislative district maps to reflect population changes. How those maps are drawn ultimately can affect what types of candidates are able to win elections. Redrawing district lines in Louisiana is expected to be exceptionally politically charged in 2010 because of the state’s significant population loss and redistribution. Louisiana is projected to lose one congressional seat and see some shifting in state legislative power—away from parts of the New Orleans area in favor of faster growing parishes.

PAR’s 2009 study, “Redistricting 2010: Reforming the Process of Distributing Political Power,” recommends that the task of redrawing political boundaries should be done by an independent commission instead of legislative leaders who have an inherent conflict of interest. Those leaders have dismissed the recommendation and are proceeding to undertake the process themselves. Regardless of who does the work, the entire redistricting process should be open to the public.

Public confidence is the underpinning of effective government. Confidence is built with transparency and accountability. Although the Legislature is within its legal right to hold informational meetings in private, doing so sends a message to citizens that some political plotting can and might take place behind closed doors. The desire and willingness of public officials to skirt the spirit of public records and open meetings laws to shield their dialogue about contentious subjects should not be tolerated, as it erodes public confidence and discourages civic participation.


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