Settlement reached in dispute over Central records

A weekly newspaper in Central will get access to public documents it sought from a contractor hired to run city services following a lawsuit settlement approved by State Judge Kay Bates, the paper’s editor and publisher said Friday.

Woody Jenkins, editor and publisher of the Central City News, said the agreement approved earlier this week ends a three-year-old public records dispute between his paper and CH2M Hill, the engineering firm that once contracted with the city.

The terms of the agreement require CH2M Hill to turn over all documents listed in the newspaper’s request except those subject to attorney/client privilege. It also requires CH2M Hill to pay the newspaper’s attorney fees. Each side in the lawsuit paid its own court costs.

The newspaper filed a lawsuit against the company in 2010 after the firm refused to provide access to public documents that the weekly newspaper had requested pursuant to Louisiana’s public records law.

CH2M Hill came under fire during the 2010 Central mayoral election for paying to run an ad in The Advocate under the caption “We Are Central.” The ad defended the cost of permit fees set by the City Council.

Jenkins filed a public records request with the city for all documents relating to the ad’s publication, citing concerns that CH2M Hill was running ads on the city’s behalf without permission.

CH2M Hill fought Jenkins’ request, saying it was a private company and was not subject to the state’s public records law.

Bates ruled in 2010 that the newspaper could inspect the records of CH2M Hill because the private engineering firm is not a public body.

The state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge threw out Bates’ ruling last year and sent the case back for a hearing on the issue of whether the role CH2M Hill played with the city rendered it instrumentality of Central’s government, thus making it subject to the state’s public records law.

A unanimous state Supreme Court let the appellate court decision stand last year without issuing written reasons.

Jenkins said the settlement was important to the people of Central and beyond.

“The people here have a right to that information. The trend of privatizing government services can be good because it saves money and it makes things more efficient but we can’t sacrifice the right of people to know what’s going on in their government,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said he had not yet received any documents as of Friday afternoon, but expected to see them sometime soon.

CH2M Hill administered city services in Central from 2008 until July 2011, when the nonprofit Institute for Building Technology and Safety took over those functions.

Ben Janke, an attorney representing CH2M Hill in the case, did not respond to a phone call and email to comment Friday.

David Barrow, chief administrative officer for the city of Central, said the city was not a party in the lawsuit and officials there had no comment about the settlement.