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Easy, obvious sunshine bill faces old school opposition

When it comes to trying to defeat a good idea, never let the inadequacy of a bad suggestion get in the way of accomplishing that, a recent exchange in a Louisiana House of Representatives committee reaffirmed.

In front of the House Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee appeared state Rep. Barry Ivey stumping for his HB 923, which would require under normal conditions posting online, if a municipality had a website, of agendas for public meetings at least 24 hours in advance (they are required to be posted publicly already) and the minutes of these meetings (at least information about motions and votes) online within a week of the meeting. Since these already must be done in paper format, and a number of jurisdictions already make the almost costless and effortless move to put them online, the bill makes eminent sense.

Its value should be self-evident. For example, before the brouhaha became so prominent that the large media outlets across the river finally noticed it and began publicizing it, how many people in Port Allen knew about their ex-mayor’s trip to the 2013 Inauguration paid for by the city, or that she had been in line to make $85,000 a year (for a city of population 5,101) until the city council cut it to about $65,000 – illegally, as it turned out? Unless you made a trek to city hall and asked to look at minutes, or the library to look at copies of the newspaper that serves as the city’s journal of record – and if you wanted a permanent copy you’d have to pay for the issue of the newspaper, or for copies from it at the library, or copies of official records (after perhaps having to make a formal request) at city hall (at the rate at least of 25 cents per page) – you would have no verified record of any of this, if even any knowledge of these actions, that might get up your curiosity or activate you to seek input into the policy-making process.

Notably, none of the information that Port Allen must collect that would be put online by this bill currently appears on its website. Surely had fewer barriers to time and cost existed that without them would have assisted citizens in discovering and learning of the issues at hand, this controversy never would have developed to the point it did, leading to court cases and the mayor’s recall with their attendant costs. Anything that government can do – which owes its livelihood to the citizenry – to make it easier for the people to know what transpires in their government (to the point it doesn’t introduce intrusiveness that produces the opposite, which the posting of agendas and minutes certainly doesn’t) not only promotes more accountable government, but likely more efficient government as well.

Yet some seem more worried about what burden – no matter how microscopic – this places on government. Such was the gist of comments made in committee to Ivey about his bill by state Rep. Johnny Bertholet, claiming he worked with the Louisiana Municipal Association on this, who complained (even after submitting amendments Ivey had accepted) this was a mandate, he was being rushed, and the bill should be put off. He declared this onerous to government and said citizens could make records requests – neglecting to add that they would be charged for these and if done by the mail as he recommended their taxes would pay for the postage.

The bill doesn’t even ask that all municipalities do this, only those with websites already, which is as simple as taking an already-existing file, uploading it to a web page, and linking. The entire combined annual cost of doing this for every municipality not already doing it probably is less than a single day’s per diem that Bertholet receives from taxpayers for bloviating at the capitol. So if it’s a mandate, it’s an incredibly reasonable one – and it’s the people’s money anyway that funds it on behalf of making their government more accountable and transparent to them.

Upon analysis, there seems to be no sensible, genuine reason why such a simple, commonsensical idea should fetch objections or even delays in implementation – unless the opposition simply does not want more open government and wishes to place as many hoops as possible for citizens to jump through to get information to which they are entitled and which can be provided so inexpensively. It’s been a hallmark of the Louisiana populist tradition to make voters as dependent as possible on only politicians as a source of information about politics, and this opposition may represent one of the dying embers of this mindset, one hopefully to meet its snuffing with passage of this bill.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Westside Journal, the local newspaper to which you refer, and the Louisiana Press Association have collaborated so that all of the Port Allen city council minutes are already posted online and have been for years. In fact, all legal notices that are published in any newspaper in Louisiana are available online. These notices are searchable by parish and by newspaper. The service is free to all citiizens and public bodies are not charged for their notices to be uploaded.