Jindal talks transparency, but no action

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When the governing board of the planned, taxpayer-funded $1.2 billion public hospital in New Orleans meets next week, the public can attend the meeting and watch the board begin its work.

No thanks needed to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who remained mum on the topic of whether the board should open its meetings to the public. In fact, Jindal’s top advisers helped organize and participated in a closed-door meeting of nearly all the board members and defended its privacy.

For a governor who ran on transparency in government, Jindal is becoming well known for not necessarily practicing what he preaches.

The state has put up a significant slice of cash to pay for the New Orleans hospital, to oversee the replacement for the LSU-run Charity Hospital and the interim hospital opened after Hurricane Katrina.

If that wasn’t enough to justify public scrutiny, projections show the state will have to pony up millions each year to operate the new teaching hospital once it opens.

Public interest didn’t dissuade nine of the governing board’s 11 members – the board is chaired by Jindal’s campaign treasurer, Robert Yarborough – from holding an unannounced, closed-door gathering with Jindal’s top legal adviser and deputy chief of staff at a New Orleans hotel.

Yarborough called it a social gathering for board members to get to know each other, and he pledged transparency in the board’s dealings. He announced his decision last week to allow the public to attend the Aug. 25 meeting of the hospital board in New Orleans.

“The first meeting will be open, and it will be suggested that all of them are open,” Yarborough said, adding he made his decision without any input from others.

Where was Jindal on all this?

The governor didn’t have an opinion, according to Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin.

“That’s up to the board. They are an independent entity,” Plotkin said in an e-mail.

Since when does that ever stop a governor, including Jindal, from commenting on things? According to an LSU statement, the governor’s office weighed in when the first person chosen to be chair of the hospital board was ousted and replaced with Jindal’s campaign treasurer.

Jindal’s refusal to press for transparency on the hospital board shouldn’t be surprising, however, to anyone who monitors state government.

After the recent legislative session ended, Jindal vetoed a bill that would have required him to make public and to preserve all his office’s documents involving the Gulf oil spill. Jindal claimed it could have hurt the state’s position in future litigation against BP PLC.

It didn’t even seem to faze the governor’s office that the veto seemed a bit strange – some called it hypocritical – after Jindal had pushed BP to open more of its records to the state.

Really, the decision was just another in a long list of Jindal stonewalls to providing public access to decision-making that obligates taxpayer dollars and decides public policy for the state.

Jindal’s top lawyers have opposed several measures to open nearly all the governor’s records to the public, arguing that the sweeping proposals could squelch the free exchange of ideas in the governor’s office.

It’s never been clear how knowing who the governor meets with, how he spends his work days and what kind of advice he gets could be harmful, at least to the taxpayers who pay his salary and provide the free mansion in which he lives.

That’s just like it wasn’t clear why the Jindal staffers needed to meet with hospital board members in private, unless they wanted to hide something from the public.

Maybe it’s a good thing Jindal didn’t lodge an opinion about the hospital board’s meetings. This week’s gathering might have been closed to the public if he had.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the state Capitol for The Associated Press.