Our Views: The insiders on emails

Attributed to Count von Bismarck is the comparison between lawmaking and sausage being made, although the Prussian landowner probably rarely got his hands bloody on his estate. He set a bad example: generations of politicians who want to do the dirty work without people looking into the abattoir.

The count did not have email in the late 1800s, but how he would have liked it.

Baton Rouge’s Metro Council members have taken to it with a will, but the reality is that the old-fashioned rule still applies: They make their sausage/ordinances with few people watching.

A review of months of emails by The Advocate suggests that more than a few of the most interesting and revealing debates between Metro Council members never reached the floor of the City Hall chambers. Instead, council members regularly take to their computers to hash out their opinions on city business and upcoming votes.

Some of the council members are rightly a bit uncomfortable about the free use of the “reply all” button in a body that is by law required to vote and to “deliberate” in public.

Chandler Loupe is one of the members who rarely chimed in on the group emails, having previously expressed his opinion to the council that they should not debate issues in emails. “It’s not a violation as they are all public records and have been produced to various individuals on numerous occasions,” he said. “With that said, we have meetings for a reason, and if we are going to debate an issue, we should do so at the public meeting and not via email.”

In technical terms, some of the members said, it’s not a violation of the open meetings law, because the emails are available to the public.

An opinion from the Attorney General’s Office in 2012 cautioned that “the discussion and passing along of discussion between board members has the effect of a quorum convening.” This guidance for public officials, though, was qualified. Unless members were inviting discussion among themselves, the “reply all” option might be legal: “There is nothing in the law which prohibits a council member from relaying his or her opinion or the opinion of a constituent to another council member, or even multiple council members, outside of an open meeting through electronic means.”

Clarity in the law is something that the sausage factory in the State Capitol should address in next spring’s legislative session, because we’d like to see a clarification based on the spirit of open meetings.

Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, said elected officials should err on the side of transparency. “You want public bodies to avoid making decisions through a system that is not a public meeting,” Scott said. “They should want to conduct themselves in the most open way, both in accordance with the spirit and letter of the law, and you don’t go about this by asking, ‘What can we get away with?’ ”

That latter point is something that members of the council, as well as other public officials, ought to reflect upon. One of the reasons for the frustrations, if not anger, of citizens is the feeling that insiders rule the roost — whether on Capitol Hill in Washington or St. Louis Street at Baton Rouge’s city hall.

We invite cynicism to say these council deliberations — for that is what they are, often enough — are available to people willing to file public records requests and then wade through emails to learn what council members are thinking. We wonder at the political backlash courted by public officials who substitute an iPhone or laptop for open decisions, openly arrived at.