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Does New Orleans Have a Public Records Problem?

Attorneys for the city of New Orleans have agreed to turn over requested information to a media outlet if it agrees not to release private information that may accidentally be included.

by Marta Jewson, The Lens / October 15, 2015
New Orleans Skyline flickr/Paul Taylor

The Lens progressed in its public records lawsuit seeking the city’s purchasing database in court Wednesday.

In a status conference with Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese, city attorneys said they would turn over the requested portions of the BuySpeed database. The nonprofit newsroom first requested it eight months ago.

But the database will come with a caveat. The Lens must sign an agreement to not release private information in the event the city accidentally turns over nonpublic information.

State law says the records custodian may separate public and nonpublic data, but Senior Chief Deputy City Attorney Cherrell Simms raised concerns about the presence of social security numbers, other errors in the database and the possibility of releasing a digital blueprint of the system, which the city uses to keep track of purchase orders and invoices.

The Lens sued the city and Mayor Mitch Landrieu earlier this year, alleging the city habitually fails to produce public records within the timeframe required by state law, citing many examples, including five unsatisfied requests. State law says records must be produced immediately. If they’re in use, the city must set a time when the requester can view them within three days.

The city’s boilerplate initial response has been a letter stating the request has been received, but it provides no time table of when the records will be made available. Some requests go unfulfilled for months. The Lens recently found the city’s log of public records to be riddled with errors.

After initially dismissing part of the lawsuit because he ruled the city had fulfilled its outstanding requests, Reese granted a rehearing upon learning the request for the BuySpeed database remained outstanding.

At a closed-door meeting in chambers last month, Reese told the city to begin providing parts of the database. The city provided parts of the database soon after, and agreed today to provide the rest upon signing of the agreement.

Lens attorney Scott Sternberg, of Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer, said he will exchange comments and meet with city attorneys early next week to fine tune the agreement.

Reese also has said that the city will be forced to pay some of The Lens’ attorneys fees in an amount to be decided later.

The Lens’ overarching allegation over slow responses from the city will be taken up by Reese in a later hearing.

The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.

This story was originally published by The Lens, an independent, nonprofit newsroom serving New Orleans.

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