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Monday, July 29, 2019

Open Meetings? For Whom?


Was law skirted in notifying citizens of bond study?

During a recent Shreveport City Council meeting, a concerned citizen made her way through the crowded audience to the public podium. After introducing herself, she asked the assembled council members and Mayor Perkins a simple, straightforward question: “Why didn’t the Bond Study Committee (which was created by a unanimous vote of the City Council) publicly announce their meetings by a press release and through social media so that more people would have known about it?” As she looked around the room, she added, “Can anybody answer that?” It was a fair question to ask. After all, when elected officials seem less than transparent, or look like they are making deals behind closed doors in that proverbial smoke-filled backroom, it erodes our very trust in government. It erodes our faith that each of us is represented and has an equal voice.

So here it was. The question that was surely on the minds of so many citizens. Why hadn’t the meetings of this bond committee been better publicized, so as to increase the public’s participation in the process? Why did it seem this was all being hurried along, at the eleventh hour? After all, the bond committee was only formed 48 hours before it even met for the first time.

The first answer came from Shreveport CAO Sherricka Fields- Jones, who was the first to speak up in that City Council meeting. Ms. Fields- Jones attempted to answer the woman’s question, explaining, “(t)he Committee meetings were published the same way as the Council meetings are. We did follow the public meetings law when we advertised those.”

But did they? And how could they? Remember now, the Citizens’ Bond Study Committee was just formed on June 11, and the very first meeting of the committee was only two days later on June 13. So, if the City of Shreveport was (as Ms. Fields-Jones indicated) strictly following the state’s public meetings law with respect to public notices, then 20 days’ notice – not two days – was required before any meeting of this committee should have taken place because the committee’s purpose involves the proposition of a tax or calling of an election for a tax. And when that’s the case, Louisiana R.S. 42:19.1 requires a minimum of 20 days’ notice of any meetings.

But whether there was notice – or not – this didn’t seem to matter at all to Councilman Willie Bradford because he followed up quickly behind Ms. Fields-Jones’ response. He proceeded to blame the lady who dared to ask that initial question about public notice of the committee meetings, saying, “Those who wanted to know about it, knew about it. Notifying the public was not my purview.”

Oh, goodness gracious. So, now it’s the citizens’ fault that “notifying the public” about these bond committee meetings was not sufficiently done? And what does it even mean that “those who wanted to know about it, knew about it”? How can I “want” to know something, Councilman Bradford, which I wouldn’t know about if you didn’t take the time to publicize it in the first place?

Perhaps, Councilman Bradford, those who could have let us know about the meetings, didn’t because they didn’t think it was important for us to know at all.

And you see, Councilman Bradford, that lady standing before you, that you are blaming for supposedly not “wanting” to know about the committee meetings, is the same lady who took time away from her job and her family to stand before the City Council and make a difference.

She was onto something important, though.

Mayor Perkins used social media countless times to let the citizens of Shreveport know whenever he is speaking to this group or that group, or when he’s traveling to Austin, Hawaii, or when he’s attending a ribbon-cutting. But there wasn’t a single posting on social media advertising the Citizens’ Bond Study Committee meetings at all between when the City Council passed the resolution establishing the committee on June 11 and the first meeting of the committee on June 13. And from all appearances, no such mentions since then, either.

The bottom line is that citizens cannot trust what they cannot see and claiming to comport with Louisiana’s open meetings law (when you may not), or blaming constituents (as if it’s their fault) is why so many have ceased seeing our elected officials as reliable partners.

You see, the State of Louisiana guarantees us, as citizens, through La. R.S. 42:4.1, the right to observe the deliberations of public bodies and to ensure “that public business be performed in an open and public manner.” This wasn’t intended as an inconvenience to our elected officials – it’s about fundamental fairness.

And that’s whether you “wanted” to know or not.

Louis R. Avallone is a Shreveport businessman, attorney and author of “Bright Spots, Big Country, What Makes America Great.” He is also a former aide to U.S. Representative Jim McCrery and editor of The Caddo Republican. His columns have appeared regularly in The Forum since 2007. Follow him on Facebook, on Twitter @louisravallone or by e-mail at louisavallone@mac.com, and on American Ground Radio at 101.7FM and 710 AM, weeknights from 6 - 7 p.m., and streaming live on keelnews.com.


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