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New public records exemption approach needs action

While it’s agreed by the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration and reformers that there ought to be more transparency in the governor’s office, finding the right way to do has been elusive and demands a new approach.

Right now, over five dozen agencies that got folded into the office remains exempt from public records requests. The problem is the original law that established the general concept of exemption simply said the governor’s office was exempt, and over the decades various reorganizations have stuffed more and more agencies and functions into it.

One approach, passed out of committee in the House, HB 1100 by state Rep. Wayne Waddell, would specify a select few positions in the governor’s office. However, the bill leaves too much ambiguity regarding the relationships of those officials to others who work for them and interrelate with them. For example, argued executive counsel Jimmy Faircloth, would a communication from a secretary in a covered position to one that was not count? No doubt meaningful and appropriate lines eventually could be figured out, but at the cost of a great deal of inefficiency and even court challenges.

Another, supported by the Administration, represented by SB 629 by Sen. Mike Walsworth which awaits the full Senate, specifies many exceptions although many fewer than currently exist. But the problem there is that in most cases they were chosen because some part, no matter how minor, of their duties logically would fall under an exception but the remainder of their duties which should not be exempt would be.

The problem is these bills focus on the jobs and positions, not on the actual content of the communications which is an approach many other states use. The ideal bill, which as yet doesn’t exist, would offer a very few blanket exemptions – governor, chief of staff, executive counsel, and others whose jobs routinely handle sensitive information like the inspector general and Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Otherwise, for all other communications, categories based on content should be defined legally and exactly, leaving no room for ambiguity but at the same time not covering under the umbrella things that have no justification for being there.

Either of these instruments can be amended into these forms, and should be, in order to reach a goal that theoretically everybody wishes to attain.

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