Our Views: Act to enforce transparency

We believe that Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office acted correctly in expressing its concern about the legality of a recent vote by the LSU Board of Supervisors to merge two top management positions at LSU. In response to concerns from Caldwell’s office, LSU Board Chair Hank Danos said that the board will re-do its vote on the issue, presumably to conform to state law.

During its Oct. 26 meeting, the board voted unanimously to merge the positions of LSU system president and chancellor of the Baton Rouge campus. The board’s agenda did not specifically list the merger proposal as an agenda item. Instead, the board voted to merge the positions as part of an agenda item dealing with a consultant’s report on LSU’s operations.

Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law requires public bodies to list agenda items for its public meetings “with reasonable specificity” so that the public can have advance notice of what might be discussed at a meeting. The requirement is intended to give citizens the ability to properly monitor business being conducted by a public body.

The way in which the LSU Board of Supervisors conducted the merger vote gave the clear impression that it was trying to fast-track a very important policy matter without the inconvenience of public input. Regardless of the merits of the merger idea, taxpayers have a right to be skeptical when such important policy matters are decided in such a secretive way.

After LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope complained about the LSU’s Board’s Oct. 26 merger vote to Caldwell, the Attorney General’s Office launched an investigation. In a subsequent letter to LSU, Assistant Attorney General Emalie Boyce outlined her office’s concerns about the legality of the vote.

The Louisiana Open Meetings Law requires the state attorney general and local district attorneys to enforce the Open Meetings Law when complaints about violations are made. They can also institute enforcement proceedings on their own initiative.

An attorney general or district attorney can enforce the Open Meetings Law grudgingly or aggressively. Vigorously prosecuting the Open Meetings Law can put an attorney general or district attorney at odds with fellow public officials who serve on public bodies.

But advancing government transparency should be a top priority for the Louisiana attorney general and local district attorneys. That mission has seemed more urgent than ever in recent years, as secrecy grows in government. At the state level, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration — as well as public bodies controlled by Jindal allies — have often acted to thwart the cause of transparency.

The LSU Board has a regrettable tradition of secrecy that started before Jindal came into office. In recent years, LSU has frequently conducted secretive searches for its top leaders, and LSU has also stonewalled efforts to obtain records dealing with the work of university officials.

Such secrecy does not advance public accountability and confidence, which is something that LSU needs as it tries to make the case for strong taxpayer support of its institutions.

When public bodies fail to follow the Open Meetings Law, the attorney general and local district attorneys have an obligation to see that these laws are enforced.