Court rulings do not mean that you are right
L ast week one of the papers that is a part of our group, The Madison Journal in Tallulah, La., had to go to court because a freelance writer had filed a freedom of information request with the City of Tallulah.
The officials in Tallulah put a stall to the request and initially said it should have gone through the mayor rather than the city clerk. Also, they wanted payment up front for the records that were being requested.
The catch was that we were not asking for copies, we were asking to see what already existed in the form of printed files. We were not asking them to create new files, just to allow us to view what should have been on file.
What we asked for was:
-Credit card statements
-Contracts and payments
-Tax revenue receipts
-Grant decision letters
-Proof of reimbursement
for non-city travel spent by city employees
-Water test reports May and June 2018
-All receipts for revenue from utilities, city fines and fees, occupational licenses, other taxes and permits and other local revenues.
We asked for all of this information from 2014 until the current date.
The city attorney initially agreed to provide the information requested at the cost of $40,000, which was $20 per hour at 2,000 hours. However, neither the paper nor the freelancer was requesting a copy but just asking to view the data. So there was no expense. It was just a matter of opening the data and allowing it to be viewed. The open records law allows for this to be done.
We received a subpoena for some data related to the freedom of information request issue that had been posted on the internet and court was scheduled for 9:30 on Friday morning. When court was called to order the attorneys representing the city asked to meet with the attorneys representing the correspondent, and a deal was struck.
The city agreed to provide all of the requested information. They also agreed to pay the attorney fees for the freelancer who was writing the story.
So here is where, in my opinion, we got it wrong. It is the responsibility of a newspaper to be fair and just. In this situation we were unfair in what we requested from the city. The amount of information we asked for was overwhelming and unrealistic.
We and other interested parties have the right to request information to ensure that our elected officials are making fair and honest decisions. Most of the time they are more than happy to provide a copy of the information on which they are basing their decisions. In this case, however, it was unrealistic to expect this much information to be made available on a whim.
After the case was ruled upon, I went to the city attorney, Raymond Lee Cannon, and told him my thoughts. I also told him as far as we were concerned to disregard the request, but I informed him that we would be making requests in the future that he may or may not like but that they would be realistic requests. I told him I hoped we could work with the city going forward but reminded him we have a job to do and asked that he relay my message to the mayor.
As I was returning home I got a call and was asked to come back and sit down with the mayor. I agreed to do so. I relayed the same sentiments to him as I did to his attorney and departed.
Our stated goal in Tallulah and the other communities we serve is to provide unbiased journalism, report objectively about our communities and when possible provide thought provoking editorial comment. Any request we make for information will be based only on our need to do that job fairly.