Records requests cost hundreds each under new LCG policy – ​​The Current

Inflation is rising, but not as fast as the price of transparency at Lafayette. In August, Lafayette Consolidated Government implemented a new fee schedule for digital copies of public documents. What was free for years will now cost citizens $1 per page, a rate that can rack up thousands in fees for expansive requests.

The Current, a nonprofit news organization, was charged more than $900 for a pair of claims filed last month. According to LCG’s new policy, not yet published, the invoice must be paid before the documents are handed over. The bill will increase as bills for other outstanding requests are calculated.

On Tuesday, The Current was charged $70 for 70 pages of engineering and payment records related to a successful drainage project. On Wednesday, LCG handed over an $856 prepayment invoice for a request for the records that included emails between LCG chief financial officer Lorrie Toups and consulting giant Deloitte. The records are critical to The Current’s ability to account for the millions in coronavirus relief church funds that LCG attempted to use for drainage projects before Deloitte determined the projects were ineligible. This determination and a dispute over state reimbursements could leave the parish in a precarious financial situation.

To avoid the fee on Tuesday’s request, The Current opted to review the records in person, a right granted by state law. Directed to the office of Assistant City and Parish Attorney Mike Hebert, The Current examined two PDF files on a wall-mounted computer screen, documents that could be easily (and historically were) transmitted by email or by file sharing service. Hebert’s paralegal, who chaperone the viewing session, says the documents were delivered to the office in that format.

“The time it took them to create this PDF is probably significantly less than it took them to make physical copies of these recordings,” says Louisiana Press Association attorney Scott Sternberg. “They’re trying to charge you more than they would have charged you 20 years ago.”

The Current has filed dozens of public records requests this year, with most records delivered electronically at no cost. If LCG’s current fee schedule were in place, production costs would have been exorbitant.

A request filed in July, which produced crucial emails for The Current’s reporting on LCG’s drainage project issues mired in lawsuits, yielded 2,082 pages of emails, not including attachments. Made today, this request would cost $2,082 or more.

Billing for “electronic copies” is an artifact of the days when documents were processed by photocopiers, a time-consuming process. The fees contemplated in the law, Sternberg says, are limited only to what it costs to make the documents available, that is, the costs of making the copies.

Applied to a digital format like a PDF, which costs little to produce outside of the general cost of computing, the logic behind these costs makes little sense. And, in practice, few agencies will make the effort to collect these fees.

Entities that charge significantly less than LCG’s fees. State agencies assess a fee of 25 cents per page or a low flat rate – when charging at all.

Legislation specifying that public bodies can assess fees for digital recordings was passed this year without objection by the LPA, which viewed the codification as basically benign. Drafted by Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, and passed by landslide, the law went into effect in August, just ahead of LCG’s decision to implement a fee schedule.

LCG’s policy, however, abuses the spirit of the law, which limits costs to “reasonable” fees, Sternberg says. The $1 per page rate is “extremely excessive” and out of step with common practice in Louisiana, he said.

“When we codified this, the author’s intent was not for public bodies to derive a windfall from the production of public records,” which, by definition, belong to the public, Sternberg says.

Public records are essential to the work of journalists and the general public, but access for media and the public has become more difficult in Lafayette.

The Robideaux administration was the first to centralize the process of responding to public requests, transferring responsibility to contractual agents. Legal costs have increased significantly since then. The Guillory administration continued this practice and implemented its own restrictive strategy, granting itself blanket extensions to provide records beyond the five-day deadline established by law.

The Current and The Daily Advertiser jointly sued LCG for the practice earlier this year. The lawsuit is pending appeal.

While LCG’s fee schedule was set by the legal department, councils have the power to set prices by order, Sternberg says. Outside of the law, challenging the charges would require litigation.

Guillory, now under investigation by city council, has always presented himself as a new kind of politician: forward-thinking, responsive and transparent. But the new fee schedule, likely to put public records out of reach for many citizens, fits a pattern of disregard for public records law that has given Lafayette a bad name in a state notorious for its shady policies.

“This is the first I’ve heard of this issue,” Sternberg says of the charges. “Lafayette just doesn’t have a great track record in the first place.”

Edward N. Arrington