Livingston council opens new front in war with Ricks

A proposed ordinance granting the Livingston Parish Council access to parish administration records could be dead on arrival Thursday night, even if, as expected, it wins council approval.

Parish President Layton Ricks says he won’t abide by it even if the measure passes.

The ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Jim Norred, seeks to grant the council clerk and finance chairman direct access to the administration’s records in both electronic and hard-copy format.

The proposed law specifically targets the administration’s electronic records-keeping system, known as Laserfiche, as well as parish archives and any other records.

The administration’s Laserfiche files include copies of checks and invoices, and personnel information, such as health insurance and disciplinary records.

To gain access to the files, the council would need its own login plus access approval, a Laserfiche representative told the council’s Ordinance Committee on Feb. 13.

Ricks said Monday that he will “absolutely not” approve that access. “It violates the parish’s Home Rule Charter in three or four different areas, including separation of powers,” Ricks said. “It would be like saying we want the key to their safe and the passwords to all their computers. You can’t do that.”

Norred said the council has no intention of taking over day-to-day operations of the parish or otherwise infringing on the parish president’s role.

“We are an equal branch of the government, not subservient to any other branch,” Norred said Tuesday. “We should have a right to conduct research and look into things ourselves.”

Norred said the ordinance also could save the administration time by eliminating records requests from the council.

Finance Chairman Chance Parent said it sometimes takes weeks to receive budget-related information.

Parent cited as an example the contract Ricks signed with engineering firm Burk-Kleinpeter in July. The council did not receive a copy of the contract until nearly a month after requesting it, he said.

However, Councilwoman Joan Landry said the council receives any information it requests, unless the information is privileged or confidential.

“The only problem was when Mr. Norred wanted to see the bills from the attorney handling the FEMA arbitration,” Landry said, referring to the parish’s case over $59 million in unpaid claims from Hurricane Gustav debris removal.

Ricks has refused to release those bills, citing attorney-client privilege.

The ordinance does not specify what kind of records the council wants to access, but does state that the clerk and finance chairman would have to follow the same security procedures as anyone else who accesses the information.

“We’re not interested in finding out anyone’s Social Security number, driver’s license number, health or other personal information,” Norred said.

Norred said prior councils dating back to 2008 had access to Laserfiche files, but access was taken away sometime after the current council took office.

Ricks disputes that, saying the prior administration gave the council access to empty file folders and nothing more.

“I’m not playing games like that,” Ricks said. “I’m the custodian of those records, and they’re not going to go rummaging through the administration’s files.”

Ricks said other parish presidents he has spoken to about the issue agreed with his stance.

East Baton Rouge and Tangipahoa parishes both have electronic records and image scanning systems, but neither has given direct access to its council members, officials in each parish said Tuesday.

Landry said she has spoken with officials in a dozen other parishes, and of those that have electronic records, none grant council access to administration files.

“I’m sure Mr. Norred has the votes lined up to pass this, and Mr. Ricks will veto it, and the council will override the veto, but this is not a good ordinance,” Landry said. “It’s overly broad, it’s against the charter and I think a judge would back that decision in a heartbeat.”

Landry said some council members are just “looking for the smoking gun. And in two years, they’ve not found it.”

“It all boils down to trust,” Landry said. “And when you lack trust, nothing works right.”