By Luke Britt
For months Police Jury Secretary-Treasurer Paula Strickland has been trying to get the Union Parish Police Jury to adopt a new policy governing how the parish handles public records requests, and once again, at their monthly meeting on Tuesday, the jury tabled the issue, this time without so much as a syllable of explanation.
The reason, I was later told, was because some jury members still had not read the 10-page document.
With all due respect to the Police Jury, I read the proposed policy, highlighted several items and even made some notations in the margins, all in about 25 minutes.
I know the jury members have a lot on their plates, but any elected official who can’t shake loose half an hour to read a document they’ve had in their possession for two months might be too busy to serve in elected office.
Public records policies are particularly important to journalists, and I have been following the evolution of the new policy since I learned Strickland was developing it. Call me cynical, but my initial assumption was that Strickland was trying to make the process of obtaining Police Jury records more difficult, and I was prepared to go to mattresses if that was the case.
Instead, Strickland has drafted a policy that tries to make obtaining public records easier for most people and places the power to produce documents in the hands of those most familiar with the requested information.
Had I known the new policy was being crafted with help of the Louisiana Police Jury Association’s chief counsel, Debbie Henten, I would have been at ease from the start. Henten is probably state’s foremost authority on the ethical application of the state’s public records laws and for years has been a champion of reducing obstacles and unnecessary burdens on citizens seeking public records while, at the same time, protecting government agencies from those who abuse the state’s public records laws.
The policy Strickland and Henten have crafted contains two important improvements over the current policy. First, it provides for a workstation in the Police Jury office that citizens can use to access the parish’s records database where they can review, print and download documents. Printing will incur a nominal fee, of course, but armed with a flashdrive, citizens can download records to their hearts’ content at no cost. Aside from the obvious convenience this provides, it also removes the need for a citizen to submit a written request that reveals the specific information the citizen wants to see. I know from experience that there are times when one would rather not alert government officials to the fact that you are investigating them.
The second aspect of the new policy I am excited about calls for the appointment of records custodians at the department level wherever practicable. This will prove invaluable to citizens who know what information they want but are uncertain which records contain that information. Currently, Strickland is the Police Jury’s only records custodian, which makes her the middlewoman for any request that involves pulling records from agencies outside her immediate office. When she receives a request for such records, she must coordinate with the department that possesses the records to determine what documents will satisfy the request. The new policy removes the middlewoman and allows citizens to communicate directly with the people who generate the records the citizen is seeking.
While I find it repugnant, I understand why some public officials might oppose a policy that makes it easier for citizens to obtain government records. The last thing some officials want is more public oversight, which is, ironically, precisely why a more citizen-friendly policy is needed. Government employees who don’t like being watched are the ones who most need watching.
What I don’t understand is how a private citizen who frequently submits records requests could oppose the new policy, but that is precisely where jury watcher Johnny Creed stands. When I asked him why he opposes the new policy, I was astounded by his answer.
“I just don’t think it’s necessary,” Creed said.
For those who don’t know the man, Creed is a government watchdog extraordinaire. He attends almost every Police Jury meeting, has an advisory role with the Detention Center Commission and frequently calls out public officials for decisions he finds questionable. He also frequently submits public records requests. In fact, in the past twelve months Creed has submitted to Strickland more public records requests than all other requestors combined.
For someone who obviously understands the power of Louisiana’s public records laws to suggest that making it easier for citizens to access government records is anything but a net good truly baffles me. I pressed him to explain his position, and now, I wish I hadn’t.
First, he said the policy is too long. No one is going to read it, he said. So what, I say. I read the policy through once, and I doubt I’ll every read it again. Parish citizens don’t need to read the policy. In fact, that’s kind of the point; just direct them to the workstation, and get out of their way. If they can’t find what they’re looking for there, tell them where to submit a written request. Creed seemed to be intentionally ignoring the fact that the new policy does not prohibit him or anyone else from submitting written requests in much the same way he has in the past, only to a different office.
Creed went on to say that Union Parish’s citizens will be so upset at having to find their own records that they will likely subject the Police Jury staff to verbal abuse, “There will be cussing,” he said. He also suggested that a large portion of Union Parish citizens are computer illiterate and won’t be able to operate the workstation. I don’t buy either argument. In fact, I find both wholly ridiculous. Some of the people of Union Parish may be rough hewn, but they are not stupid, nor are they animals likely to lash out at the women who work in the Police Jury office over having to use a computer.
For the record, I don’t enjoy calling Creed out like this, and I’m probably gonna catch hell for it. But Creed has been lobbying the jury to reject the new policy, and I fear his arguments, no matter how nonsensical, will provide just the excuse some jurors need to reject the proposed public records policy out of a misguided fear of increased public scrutiny. It is my opinion that the more citizens looking over the government’s shoulder the better, and I can’t think of a better reason for the jurors to approve it.