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Wednesday, July 17, 2019



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Publication of parish’s meeting transcripts lagging

Publication of parish’s meeting transcripts lagging

Lafourche Parish residents wanting to read the official transcript of what happened at Parish Council meetings in early 2018 had to wait until this spring to do so due to months-long publishing delays.

The Parish Council lost its minute clerk last year, resulting in months of unapproved and unpublished minutes, or transcripts, that could violate state public meetings laws.

Public bodies or councils are required to write and publish transcripts, or summaries, of their meetings in the official parish journal within 20 days of a meeting. The Daily Comet is the official journal for Lafourche Parish government.

Louisiana’s open records law states municipal councils, police juries and school boards could face fines and possible jail time if “within twenty days from the date of any meeting at which the official proceedings were had, willfully neglects or fails to furnish the official journal with a copy of the minutes, ordinances, resolutions, budgets, and proceedings for publication.”

The Lafourche Parish Council’s longstanding minute clerk retired around February 2018. Afterward, the council fell behind in approving its minutes for about four months.

The minutes for the council’s regular meeting on Feb. 27, 2018, weren’t approved until June 12, 2018, after a replacement was hired and trained. However, those same minutes were not published in the official journal until nine months later, on March 15, 2019, more than a full year after the meeting date.

Council Chairman Noonie Autin said the council staff experienced some personnel issues during that time. The replacement minute clerk has since resigned and the council has hired a temporary clerk to help finish typing the missed minutes until a permanent replacement can be found through the Civil Service system.

Autin said the temporary employee is being paid at a rate of $17.37 per hour. Since taking over as council chairman in January, Autin said he’s been pushing for the council to approve at least three sets of minutes per meeting.

According to meeting records, the council has approved two or three sets of minutes per meeting since January.

Part of the problem, however, is when council members request that the minutes be published verbatim, Autin said.

Public bodies are not required to publish word-for-word transcripts of their meetings, only the general action that was taken and any discussion of note.

Yet, in Lafourche, council members can ask for the minutes to be published word-for-word. Autin said this is slowing down the process and is usually done when there’s some sort of “petty bickering” at a meeting.

While Autin said he’s been in communication with the Lafourche District Attorney’s Office on this issue, the parish isn’t facing any fines due to lack of publication because there was no willful neglect, as the law states.

“We’re abiding but what we need to do,” Autin said. “We certainly don’t want to step outside those lines.”

The council hasn’t received any public records requests for the minutes, nor questions from the public, he said.

The bigger problem, Autin said, is that the state’s publication laws are “antiquated.”

The parish has a free website that is open to all residents, not just paid subscribers of a print newspaper, he said.

The cost would also be significantly less to only publish online, not only for the council but for all parish boards and commissions, Autin said.

According to state law, the parish is already required to publish the minutes online 10 days after publication because it maintains a website.

All of the minutes for 2018 are on the parish’s website. As of May 9, the minutes for 2019, which began being published in early April, are not.

 

-- Daily Comet Staff Writer Julia Arenstam can be reached at 448-7636 or julia.arenstam@houmatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaArenstam.