Suit alleges access blocked

Aaron E. Looney

SORRENTO – The Ascension Parish Tourist Commission voted Friday to change the method by which it handles public records requests, after a lawsuit was filed in district court earler in the week alleging that commission employees denied requests to view records.

The commission voted to make Ascension Parish Chief Administrative Officer Cedric Grant as its custodian of public records, pending approval by the Ascension Parish Council.

Commission Chairman Robert Judice said during Friday’s special meeting at the commission’s office that any request for public records would then have to go through parish government and that most of the commission’s records would be stored at the parish government office in Gonzales.

Judice said Friday that because there are only two staff members at the commission office, public records requests take too much time and keep the employees away from their regular duties.

Theresa Robert of Gonzales filed the suit in 23rd Judicial District Court Oct. 22, claiming that she had been denied access to commission records. In the suit, Robert alleges the commission “arbitrarily and unreasonably refused to comply with Louisiana public records law” when she submitted a written request Oct. 14 to view minutes from the commission’s Sept. 23 meeting.

Robert also requested to view travel expense records for all commission employees between August 2006 and September 2008.

Officials with the commission said that Robert was granted access to the records she requested, but that they designated a viewing time that was after regular business hours because the request was the third made by Robert to view the documents.

Ramon Gomez, the commission’s project and events manager, said in a written response to Robert’s request dated Oct. 15 that Robert could view the documents after the close of business “to not disrupt our normal business of the day.” Gomez said in the letter that because Robert would be viewing the documents after the close of business, which requires a staff member to remain on the premisis, she would have to pay a deposit of $62.05 for a minimum of three hours overtime pay and a charge of $20.68 for any time beyond the additional three hours.

In a second letter dated Oct. 15, Gomez listed a specific time during business hours Robert could view the records free of charge.

Lindsey Manda, parish legal counsel, stated in a formal response to the suit filed Thursday that Gomez’s letters were evidence of the commission’s desire to comply with public records law.

Commission members directed questions concerning the suit to Manda and co-counsel Joe Lavigne, who declined comment.

During a hearing Thursday before District Judge Ralph Tureau, where Robert filed for a writ of mandamus to immediately produce the records she requested, Manda told Tureau that the commission would provide Robert with the requested documentation and any future requests at no charge.

As part of her suit, which names both the commission and Gomez as defendants, Robert is seeking compensation for attorney’s fees and costs and a civil payment of $100 per day that the commission allegedly failed to provide records for each request. The civil payment request is allowed by state law.

Tureau issued a continuance for the hearing to resume Nov. 14 at 9 a.m.