The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, continues to threaten the lives of Louisianans and has crippled our economy. Another illness has infected Louisiana government: a plague of secrecy.
I read, listen and watch the reporting around our state—not only because my practice involves media work but because I care. Our local reporters are doing yeoman’s work – and they are doing it without one of their most important tools – the public records law.
While local governments have been largely adaptive to open meetings, and people are more interested in their government than ever, the governor and some local officials are selectively ignoring our powerful Public Records Law, leaving the people starved for information unless it is given to them by some generous benefactor.
A public records request for the data model behind the governor’s predictions for ventilator and ICU bed occupancy was met with a response that they could get the data after COVID-19 was over. How does that help people make educated decisions about how to act?
The nursing homes where hotspots occur are no longer public information, either. Thousands of Louisianans with loved ones in nursing homes now lack what is undoubtedly the most important piece of information for them to have before making life-changing decisions.
Children in juvenile detention centers and prisoners in state prisons are infected, we think—but we don’t get that information either. Prisoners aren’t the most sympathetic candidates, I’ll give you that, but what about the civilians and peace officers who work at our prisons? Don’t their families deserve to know, in addition to those incarcerated?
Finally, as a last example, the age and racial breakdown of Louisiana patients has been something reporters have been asking for since the first infections began. That information is still not available—although the governor did announce last week that 70% of Louisiana’s patients were African American. Imagine what the leaders of that community—and the leaders of our state—could have done with that data point weeks ago if it had been readily turned over to the requesting media.
With the courts largely closed, my conclusion is that what is old is new again. As our government turns its back on transparency – there are still stories to tell that reporters have to track down the old-fashioned way. Louisianans are starved for information. Good old-fashioned reporting, led by socially distant but gumshoe reporters, can give people a glimpse of the information we are being denied.
Some family has a son in juvenile detention and can’t get information. Another has a brother in Angola. Still another has a grandmother or a great aunt in a nursing home, and a friend at the hospital. Reporters around our state should tell their stories, and make sure their readers know that the government they pay for with their tax dollars wasn’t helpful—or that they were if you’re one of the lucky ones.
Scott Sternberg is general counsel to the Louisiana Press Association and practices law with Sternberg, Naccari, & White, LLC in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Scott operates the LPA legal hotline and can be reached at email@example.com; www.snw.law; 504-324-2141. This column is not to be construed as creating an attorney-client relationship or giving legal advice. You should consult with a licensed professional about your business and legal obligations.