Judge rules APTC did not follow public records law

Aaron E. Looney

After a full day of testimony from numerous witnesses, a 23rd Judicial District Court Judge ruled Friday that the Ascension Parish Tourist Commission did not follow state public records law properly in providing public documents to a local citizen and community activist.

Judge Ralph Tureau awarded $500 in attorneys fees to Theresa Robert, since the requested documents had been provided to Robert before Friday’s hearing.

In his ruling, Tureau said that there was “no reason to doubt that the Tourist Commission did not act in good faith, but the test is not good faith.”

Tureau said that while he understood that the commission’s two full-time staffers may have felt overwhelmed by the records requests made by Robert, state law requires that any public records be immediately presented when requested, if available. Tureau ruled that this did not happen with Robert’s requests.

Robert filed suit against the commission Oct. 22, claiming that the agency “arbitrarily and unreasonably refused to comply with Louisiana public records law” when she requested Oct. 14 to see minutes of the commission’s Sept. 23 meeting as well as travel expenses for all commission employees dating from August 2006 through September 2008.

Ramon Gomez, projects and events manager for the commission, testified that he had the option to schedule the viewing after hours and did so because she made the employees uncomfortable, Lavigne said. According to state public records law, the custodian can schedule a time after business hours for review of public documents, with a charge for keeping the custodian after hours.

At the time, Gomez was the designated custodian of the commission’s public records.

Gomez 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 premises, 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.

After the lawsuit was filed, the commission voted at an Oct. 31 meeting to move custodial responsibilities for its records to parish government, with Chief Administrative Officer Cedric Grant taking over those duties.

Commission Chairman Robert Judice said at the time that the decision was made because the parish administrators can handle public records requests in a better manner. He added 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 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.

Attorneys called  numerous witnesses during the hearing including Gomez and fellow commission staffers Bernice August, Laura Evans and Loretta Templet, commission attorney Mike Poirrier and Robert.

Attorney Joe Lavigne, who represented the commission, argued that the documents were available to Robert for review, but that Robert caused a disturbance in operations at the center when she went to view them.

“The commission did everything in its power to provide Mrs. Robert with the documents,” Lavigne said after the decision. “The judge not awarding damages in the case proves that he saw that.”

Robert’s attorney, Al Robert Jr., said after the decision that the suit was meant to help bring awareness to following open public records laws.

“The judge recognized that the commission failed to comply with public records law,” Robert said. “I think the commission and parish officials will take public records law seriously now after this decision.”