Residents learn about state public records, open meetings laws
By:Lynette Hingle, Southeastern U. Reporter June 27, 2003
Louisiana's public records and open meetings laws are strong, and penalties
exist for those who do not follow them.
About 75 people including elected officials, other government
employees, committee members and ordinary citizens heard 21st Judicial District
Attorney Scott Perrilloux and two of his assistants explain the intricacies of the
laws as well as the penalties for violating them. The Public Records and Open
Meetings Information Seminar was held Thursday night at Southeastern Louisiana
University's Student Union Theater.
Clifton Speed discussed public records, and Blayne Honeycutt discussed
"You can basically think of public records as your government's
records," Speed said. "They belong to the people, and the people have access to
While there are some exceptions, most documents generated by government
are public records. Even drafts of documents, statistics, maps, letters,
memos, budget requests, budgets, tapes, electronic data, payrolls, certain
retirement information, tax assessment rolls and initial police reports are public
Speed said the law mandates that records custodians be courteous and
respectful of a citizen's right to view public documents, and the public should
likewise be reasonable with their requests.
Patience should be exercised on the part of the citizen, Speed said, in
cases of certain unusual circumstances where the document may currently be in
use by a government body for a purpose such as auditing or when the document
is extremely large.
"The greater the volume, the more time it may take," Speed said.
If a custodian determines the record sought is not public, he must
provide written reasons, including the legal basis, within three working days.
Records custodians who do not allow the public access to their records
will face civil and criminal penalties, Speed said.
If a citizen is unlawfully denied a public record, the court will award
reasonable attorney's fees and costs. The court may also award civil
penalties of up to $100 for each day the custodian arbitrarily failed to give a
written explanation of the reasons for denying the request. Actual damages may be
awarded if proven. Criminal penalties include fines ranging from $100 to $1,000
or imprisonment for one to six months for a first conviction, and there are
stiffer penalties for a subsequent conviction.
The attorneys observed that, as government increasingly uses computers
for storage of records, agencies are exploring ways to separate the public
content from the private content so that citizens can more easily access the
Just as records custodians are banned from hiding the public's records,
meetings of governing bodies cannot legally hide from the public either,
Louisiana law states that the public is allowed to attend and record
the deliberations of the following public bodies: city and parish governing
bodies, school, levee and public utilities boards; planning, zoning, airport and
policy making commissions; state and local special district boards; advisory
and administrative functions; and committees or subcommittees of those bodies.
"Each public body has its own rules and regulations for governing their
meetings," Honeycutt said, but, regardless of the procedure, at least 24
hours' written public notice of the meeting must be posted, minutes must be taken
during the meeting and then published, and other rules apply under the state
The law allows public bodies to decide, via a two-thirds vote, to close
a meeting to the public to discuss personnel issues relating to an
individual's character, discuss professional competence or health; discuss strategy or
negotiations regarding collective bargaining or actual pending litigation;
discuss security personnel, plans or devices; discuss investigation of misconduct;
or deal with natural disasters or major emergencies.
The reason for the "executive session" must be stated to the public
before closing the meeting, and Honeycutt said, the law states that no action can
be taken in private - no polling of members, no votes.
"But what about the meeting before the meeting?" Rick Webb, an Amite
resident, wanted to know.
Perrilloux said his office doesn't get many complaints about violations
of the open meetings law, but when it does it's usually about the "meeting
before the meeting."
It's just not allowed, he said.
"If you are a board member, you need to careful about that," Perrilloux
said, "because you could be in violation of the open meetings law... It could
technically be a social meeting, but if you are doing that you are raising a
Citizens who feel that a public body has violated the law may file
their complaints with the district attorney or the state attorney general, and the
suit must be filed within 60 days of the action to nullify an action taken by
a public body.
If the court determines the public body violated the law, attorney fees
can be awarded and a member of the public body who participated in an illegal
meeting may be fined up to $100 per violation, which may be awarded to the
Members of the audience asked several questions related to personnel
issues, charges for public records and other specifics of the law.
Pam Mitchell-Wagner, executive director of the Louisiana Press
Association, distributed copies of the Citizens' Rights Card on Open Meetings and
Public Records. Copies of the card are available from the press association. Call
©The Daily Star 2003