Parish government should produce records

An on-going attempt by The Times to obtain copies of legal bills charged to Terrebonne Parish in regard to litigation against oil and gas companies has received the support of a legal opinion by a district attorney not involved in any facet of the matter.

Ricky Babin of the 23rd Judicial District reviewed a request by The Times for bills from the law firm of Hebert & Marceaux to the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government, under that firm’s file number of 16243. That file concerns suits against oil and gas companies for damage to the Louisiana coast, and Terrebonne’s alleged examination of coastal use permits which could indicate that some companies violated the law. TPCG had denied the records request and The Times complained to District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr., as the law allows in such circumstances.

District Attorney Waitz recused himself because his office is involved with a similar assessment, and asked District Attoeny Babin to review, and offer an opinion.

We were in no way surprised that Mr. Babin found in favor of our request.

His statement that certain information, if contained in the files, should be redacted if it falls under certain exemptions permitted by the Public Records Act, is also expected. We were fully prepared for that to be the case if the parish government had followed the law in the first place. Our request was simple and very narrow. We wished to see invoices presented to the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government to be paid for with the peoples’ dollars. Anything other than dollar amounts, dates and the number of billable hours would be extraneous and beyond the scope of what we desired. When it comes to matters of public records we believe in fighting hard for your right to know, but we also believe in being fair. Mr. Babin’s opinion presents a fair compromise, which appears to be based on the concerns of both sides.

As Gordon Dove has worked through his first term as Terrebonne Parish President, his administration has been helpful in most instances when public records requests were made. Mart Black, whom Mr. Dove appointed as Custodian of Records, has been conscientious and helpful. We have maintained a good working relationship with him over his tenure. We realize, however, that the decision to withhold these public records was not made by Mr. Mart. That decision clearly rests on the shoulders of Mr. Hebert.

Our request for his billing records was initially a matter of journalistic housekeeping. Parish President Dove had stated that he opposes suits against oil companies, loudly and publicly. When confronted with District Attorney Waitz’s acceptance of a request by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources to audit coastal use permits and investigate what coastal damage has occurred in the parish, Mr. Dove – again loudly and publicly – said the parish has had attorneys doing just that.

As part of the coverage surrounding these issues, it was a no-brainer for the newspaper to seek verification of that claim. The parish wishes to sue oil companies or it does not. Should the records indicate through the attorney hours billed that there has been no traceable effort to do so, then the people should know. If the record indicates that behind the scenes there has been a strong push, based on attorney hours, to litigate on this matter than the people have a right to know as well.

The Louisiana Public Records Act – eviscerated by many amendments filed on behalf of special interests over many years – stands strong in its main objective, to see to it that the people’s business should be viewed by the people, to engender healthy debate, discussion, and an overall sense of openness in government.

We have always respected the parish’s decisions in these matters even though we have disagreed with some. But this request is one that must be granted. The parish could, if it wished, press the issue and force this newspaper, any other outlet, or any other individual seeking these records, to go to court for the law to be enforced.

It is our hope that this won’t be the case, particularly in light of Mr. Babin’s well-reasoned opinion.

Good government is open government, even when matters which people attempt to bring into the sunshine are uncomfortable or controversial.

It is our hope at this point that the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government follow the law, and release the requested records as soon as possible.