Inflation is rising, but not as fast as the price of transparency in Lafayette. In August, Lafayette Consolidated Government rolled out a new fee schedule for digital copies of public records. What had been free for years will now cost citizens $1 a page, a rate that can rack up thousands in fees for expansive requests.
The Current, a nonprofit news organization, was billed more than $900 for a pair of requests filed last month. According to LCG’s new policy, not yet published, the invoice must be paid before the documents are turned over. The bill will increase as invoices for other outstanding requests are calculated.
On Tuesday, The Current was invoiced $70 for 70 pages of engineering and payment records related to a blockbuster drainage project. On Wednesday, LCG delivered an $856 prepayment invoice for a records request that included emails between LCG CFO Lorrie Toups and consulting giant Deloitte. The records are vital to The Current’s ability to report on the millions in parish coronavirus relief funds LCG tried to use on drainage projects before Deloitte determined the projects did not qualify. That determination, and a squabble over reimbursements from the state, could leave the parish in a precarious financial position.
To avoid the charge on the Tuesday request, The Current opted to review the records in person, a right afforded by state law. Directed to Assistant City-Parish Attorney Mike Hebert’s office, The Current reviewed two PDFs on a wall-mounted computer monitor, documents that could be easily (and historically were) transmitted by email or file-sharing service. Hebert’s paralegal, who chaperoned the viewing session, says the documents were delivered to the office in that format.
“The amount of time it took them to make that PDF is probably significantly less than it used to take them to make physical copies of those records,” 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 documents turned over electronically at no charge. Were LCG’s current fee schedule in place, production fees would have been exorbitant.
One request filed in July, which yielded emails crucial to The Current’s reporting on problems with LCG drainage projects mired in lawsuits, produced 2,082 pages of emails, not including attachments. Made today, that request would cost $2,082 or more.
Charging for “electronic copies” is an artifact of the days when records were run through copy machines, a time-consuming process. The fees contemplated in the law, Sternberg says, are limited only to what it costs to make the records available i.e. the costs of making copies.
Applied to a digital format like a PDF, which costs little to produce outside of the general cost of computing, the logic supporting those fees makes little sense. And, in practice, few agencies will make the effort to collect those charges.
Those entities that do charge well less than LCG’s fee. State agencies assess a 25-cent fee per page or a low flat rate — when they charge at all.
Legislation clarifying that public agencies can assess fees for digital records was passed this year without objection by the LPA, which viewed the codification as fundamentally benign. Authored by Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, and passed by landslide, the law took 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 a “reasonable” fee, Sternberg says. The $1 per page rate is “grossly excessive” and out of step with common practice in Louisiana, he says.
“When we codified this, the intent of the author was not for public bodies to get a windfall from the production of public records,” which, by definition, the public owns, Sternberg says.
Public records are essential to the work of reporters and for the public at large, but access for the media and the public alike has become more difficult in Lafayette.
The Robideaux administration was the first to centralize the process of responding to public requests, shifting the responsibility to contract attorneys. Legal fees have climbed significantly since. The Guillory administration has continued that practice and implemented a restrictive spin of its own, granting itself blanket extensions to deliver records beyond the five-day deadline established by law.
The Current and The Daily Advertiser jointly sued LCG over that practice earlier this year. The suit is pending appeal.
While LCG’s fee schedule was set by the legal department, the councils have the authority to set prices by ordinance, Sternberg says. Outside of legislation, challenging the fees would require litigation.
Guillory, now the subject of a City Council investigation, has consistently held himself out 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 contempt for public records law that’s made a bad name for Lafayette in a state infamous for shady politics.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of this issue,” Sternberg says of the fees. “Lafayette just doesn’t have a great track record in the first place.”