Transparency: It’s Sunshine Week!


Well, it is that time of year again! For some, it’s Spring that brings hope. The season ushers in a time of rebirth and abundant sunlight. Others are reminded of the Ides of March, that pivotal time when Julius Caesar was killed and the Roman Republic fell into decline. But when you work in government transparency this time of year can only mean one thing – Sunshine Week!

Is it the 19th Anniversary of Sunshine Week?

Although the first nationwide Sunshine Week came about in March of 2005, its origins can be traced to an earlier date. In Florida (the Sunshine State), Sunshine Sunday was started in 2002 in response to efforts by Florida lawmakers to add multiple new exemptions to the public records law in the state. Before that, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan issued Proclamation 5447 declaring March 16 as Freedom of Information Day. That proclamation came twenty years after the signing of the Freedom of Information Act into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson and coincided with the birthday of President James Madison, the Father of the Constitution.

In part, Reagan’s proclamation reads:

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Madison eloquently expressed the guarantees in the Bill of Rights, in particular in the freedoms of religion, speech, and of the press protected by the First Amendment. He understood the value of information in a democratic society, as well as the importance of its free and open dissemination. He believed that through the interaction of the Government and its citizens, facilitated by a free press and open access to information, the Government could be most responsive to the people it serves. Surely the American experience has proved him right.

Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone…

Those are quite more than just lyrics from a Bill Withers song. Sunshine and life go together. You can’t have one without the other. And the same is true with good government. Without transparency, without light shining into the dark corners, the corrupt actions of nefarious actors thrive like underground fungi that flourish in the absence of light. But how long can we expect to have open and free access to public information and records? How long before we are unable to participate freely in public meetings?

Gideon Tucker, a Surrogate (Judge) handling probate and estate proceedings in New York, wrote in an opinion rendered in 1866:

No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.

This statement was about a newly enacted New York law that ultimately impacted the outcome of an estate matter he was presiding over. His observations still ring true today and it just so happens that the Louisiana Regular Session begins on March 11 this year, during Sunshine Week. Will this session bring more or less government transparency?

2024 Regular Session

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said:

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Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.

Presently the Public Records Law in Louisiana consists of hundreds of exceptions. Over a dozen bills filed for the 2024 Regular Session are aimed at or could impact Louisiana’s public records and open meetings laws. So just how will these bills affect our constitutional right to observe the actions of our public bodies and our ability to examine public records? Well, here are a few to watch.

Shining Light!

HB103Mike Johnson (R 6/10) would require each school board and parish governing authority in a parish with a population of 25,000 or more and each governing authority of a municipality with a population of 10,000 or more to broadcast live all its public proceedings. This includes committee meetings. It would also require the public body to include on its meeting notice sufficient information to enable the public to locate the broadcast for viewing.

HB113Dixon McMakin (R 6/10) would require copies of records held by a public postsecondary education institution to be furnished without charge to any student-produced media outlet affiliated with the institution.

HB116Dixon McMakin (R 6/10) would make personnel records of a public employee public record and subject to disclosure.

HB221Mike Bayham (R 6/10) provides that recall petitions are public records and when they would be made available.

HB446Stephanie Hilferty (RINO 4/10) would require the public body to give notice of meetings to any member of the public or the news media who requests notice. It’s significant because notice would be provided to the requestor at the same time and in the same manner as it is given to members of the public body.

HB680Josh Carlson (R 9/10) would add to the official journal definition the official website of the parish Clerk of Court and Secretary of State. This modernization provides the public with ready access to information. It also frees the public to innovate and automate notifications on relevant public notices to interested parties. Currently, these public notices are only allowed to be distributed through antiquated newsprint.

SB24Alan Seabaugh (R 9/10) seeks to repeal Code of Criminal Procedure Article 234. If you don’t recall this article became law through Act 494 of the 2022 Regular Session which was brought by former Representative Royce Duplessis (D 1/10). That bill (HB729) also exempted most booking photographs (mugshots) from being public records. Rescinding the article in the criminal code would make the public records exception obsolete.

Inviting Darkness?

HB95Mike Johnson (R 6/10) would allow a public body to no longer have to read the consent agenda. Effectively, that would allow a governing body to approve an entire agenda without even having to look at it. It’d be great if this bill would eliminate consent agendas instead. Then, every item’s title would have to be read aloud before being voted upon.

HB222 and HB461Steven Jackson (D 5/10) would make confidential any government records about the active negotiation of an economic development project in the parish or municipality. He should just name this one the “smoke-filled backroom act.”

HB268Mike Johnson (R 6/10) would make the home address and the home and personal wireless telephone number of any public employee automatically confidential.

HB408Mandie Landry (D 1/10) seeks to create the “Louisiana Voluntary Do Not Sell Firearms Act” and restrict the records from being accessed by the public. This bill creates a “voluntary” list to which a person may add themself. This list is not a public record. If someone sells a firearm to such a person, the seller is subject to a fine of $2,500 and a year in jail. However, the receiver of the firearm only has to pay a $100 fine and perform four hours of community service. This has gotcha written all over it.

HB443Kimberly Coates (R 6/10) provides that files, reports, records, communications, working papers, or videotaped interviews used or developed in providing services under Title V, Part II of the Children’s Code are confidential and not subject to the public records law.

HB669Delisha Boyd (D 2/10) would restrict access to the personal information of certain individuals, including current and retired judges, Clerks of Court, and even certain family members.

SB129Bob Owen (R 6/10) would provide for the confidentiality of a public employee’s cell phone number and personal email address or addresses if they requested them to be confidential.

The Pendulum Swings

The pendulum in government always swings! To the left and the right, to the left and the right, again. But the pendulum of government power doesn’t quite behave in the same manner. That pendulum always tends to swing in the direction of more government control, more government restriction, and a loss of liberty! It is very rare that liberty lost is ever restored.

The 2024 Second Extraordinary Session was indeed extraordinary in this manner. Mainly because it produced an outcome which all too often is the exception rather than the rule. Through SB01 the Legislature passed “Constitutional Carry”. It is a small victory, but one that we need to acknowledge as it restores rights to the average citizen which never should have been infringed upon. That bill was brought by Senator Blake Miguez (R 9/10), coauthored by Senators Caleb Kleinpeter (R 6/10), Jay Morris (R 9/10), and Alan Seabaugh (R 9/10), then carried in the House by Representative Mike Johnson (R 6/10). Many additional legislators later signed on as cosponsors of the bill. We won’t mention all of them here, but we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the tireless efforts of Danny McCormick (R 10/10) in years past to get this done in Louisiana.

Wrapping up

So, as we close, it’s a good time to remind you: “No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” With nearly 1,100 bills already filed for the upcoming session we should look at each of them through the lens of whether they give the government more power or the people more freedom. Do they provide for greater transparency and accountability or do they dim the lights in the corridors of our State Capital and every local government across our state? Florida may be the “Sunshine State,” but Louisiana “You Are My Sunshine!” It is your time to shine bright!


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