Straight News Online and The Acadiana Advocate sue to block LCG digital records fees

Mayor-President Josh Guillory
Mayor-President Josh Guillory is being sued for the second time this year by local media over access to public records. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Straight News Online and The Acadiana Advocate sued Mayor-President Josh Guillory Monday morning, after his administration implemented a $1-per-page fee for digital copies of public records amid intensifying scrutiny of his government.

Facing questions about the policy on a regular radio appearance, the M-P singled out local media as the target.

“I wish every media outlet had to pay $100 a page,” Guillory said Sept. 15. “All these media outlets, they pry and pry, they take our directors away from helping people just to pry and pry and make things up.”

The suit alleges “egregious and intentional” abuse of the state’s Public Records Law and seeks to hold Guillory personally liable for attorneys’ fees, costs and damages. Assigned to 15th Judicial District Judge Marilyn Castle, the action also argues that the fee likely violates LCG’s Home Rule Charter, which requires council approvals for all “assessments and charges.”

Since the beginning of the year, Straight News Online, a non-profit news outlet, has undertaken an extensive investigation of LCG’s drainage program. Straight News Online’s reporting raised questions about the propriety of the $84 million Bayou Vermilion Flood Control project, documented a potential violation of public bid law, and uncovered unauthorized spending to conduct a secretive removal of spoil bank levees in St. Martin Parish. In reporting those stories, Straight News Online filed dozens of public records requests, with most documents turned over electronically at no charge. Were LCG’s current fee schedule in place at the time, production fees would have been exorbitant.

Authorities on the state’s Public Records Law have consistently held that public agencies cannot charge for anything other than the hard costs of copying the records. In practice, such charges have been limited to paper copies. Most public bodies either do not charge for “electronic records” or assess a flat fee of $15 or $25 for electronic copies, according to the suit.

LCG, however, is taking advantage of a clarification in the state law this year that sought to ensure custodians of records could establish reasonable fees for “making copies” of electronic documents. The bill’s author, State Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, says LCG’s fees are abusive.

“My bill was to codify the law, not give government free license to charge unfair amounts of money to people seeking public records. Lafayette’s charge of $1 a page directly violates the letter and the spirit of my legislation, and the law,” Duplessis says.

Guillory falsely claimed on KPEL last week that the change in state law requires LCG to charge $1 per page. The law does not require that any amount be charged.

The most recent records Straight News Online is seeking, for which LCG has invoiced more than $900, are vital to this news organization’s ability to report on the millions in parish coronavirus relief funds LCG tried to use on drainage projects before a national consultant determined the projects did not qualify.

We asked for your help with this litigation, and you came through — in a big way. It took one hour Friday to raise the money we needed for court costs to knock down Josh Guillory's paywall. So far, we have raised more than $7,000 on 120 donations.

That determination, and a squabble over reimbursements from the state, could leave LCG in a precarious financial position (the City Council is set to vote Tuesday on an ordinance authorizing up to $100,000 for an investigation into drainage projects). Records responsive to Straight News Online's request were delivered to Assistant City-Parish Attorney Mike Hebert's office where they were displayed as PDFs on a wall-mounted TV screen.

Emailing that package of records would have added negligible expense.

City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan sitting behind two out-of-focus individuals
City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan violated the state's public records law when he refused to allow a reporter from The Acadiana Advocate to view City Hall's sign-in log before paying a fee, the lawsuit alleges. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The records The Acadiana Advocate are seeking relate to City Hall visitor sign-in sheets, for which the paper was denied a request to view in person from City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan without first paying an invoice, another violation of state law, which holds that “no fee shall be charged to any person to examine or review any public records.”

Under the Louisiana Constitution, the media has no more right to LCG’s records than any citizen, but Guillory, who is an attorney, has chosen to take aim at the media.

“Mayor-President Guillory's comments show contempt for public accountability. Those words can't be unsaid — and every person and business who pays taxes in Lafayette should be very concerned,” says Louisiana Press Association attorney Scott Sternberg, who is representing the two media outlets, along with Lafayette attorney Gary McGoffin.

“Public servants can't tax their citizens because they are asking questions about what the government is up to. The man did everything but triple dog dare us to sue him, and we're up for the challenge,” Sternberg adds.

“Nothing in the recent amendments to the Louisiana Public Records Law compels the Lafayette Consolidated Government to impose these new, cost-prohibitive charges,” McGoffin says. “It is an obvious attempt to impair every person’s constitutional right to know, first hand, what LCG is doing.”

Both attorneys are handling the case free of charge but would recover their fees should the media outlets prevail.

The lawsuit is seeking to stop Guillory from continuing to violate the law by charging $1 per electronic page and to allow any citizen to view the records in person free of charge.

Monday’s lawsuit is the second public records action Straight News Online has taken against the administration, having successfully gained access to records on the sexual harassment investigation and subsequent firing of interim Lafayette Police Chief Wayne Griffin in May. Another aspect of that case, a challenge to the Guillory administration granting itself blanket extensions to deliver records beyond the five-day deadline established by law, is pending appeal. The Daily Advertiser is also a plaintiff in that suit.