Central City News v. CH2M Hill Was Case Of David versus Goliath with High Stakes
Our newspaper’s battle for access to public records of CH2MHill appears to be coming to an end. After three and a half long years of legal battles, CH2MHill has agreed in court filings to provide the public records which we requested in March 2010.
We are supposed to receive those records today. We have already received a check to reimburse the newspaper for our attorney fees.
This was really quite a mismatch. A small hometown community newspaper took on a major international corporation that grosses more than $6 billion a year.
It is the kind of outcome that is not predictable because the common wisdom is that the big boys always win.
We took up the challenge of fighting for public access to public records for a number of reasons.
In assessing the difficulty of challenging CH2MHill, we thought of someone else — the average citizen of Central who might someday need to see city records in order to protect his home, business, or other rights.
If we, the local newspaper, couldn’t get simple public records, how could he?
If we had to fight a multi-billion corporation for ordinary public records, how could the average citizen hope get to see records he needed.
People just don’t have the money to fight such battles. Unfortunately, neither did we.
But we determined to make a stand, risk everything, and fight for what we believe is right.
Privatization can be a very good thing. It can lower costs and make it unnecessary to fund gigantic retirement programs for public employees.
But privatization should never be used to shield the public from the knowledge of what their government is doing to them. Privatization should not be a means for powerful politicians to get a private company to do what they as government officials are prohibited from doing.
Three and a half years ago, Central had become a company town, where a large multinational corporation exercised amazing influence and power, in cooperation with a handful of more than willing local officials. The potential for corruption was enormous.
Fortunately, that episode is over. CH2MHill was ousted as the city contractor, and secrecy and power politics appear on the way out.
It is good to see justice done.
However, justice has been a long time coming and at a high price.
We just hope and pray that we have established a precedent that local officials across Louisiana will understand — that privatization cannot be used as a way to circumvent the public records law.
We hope this case shows that substance is more important than form. In other words, public officials can’t avoid public disclosure by placing money and power in the hands of private contractors who perform public responsibilities.
As one judge said, if they are getting the public’s money, they should be answerable to the public.
While the privatization of a city government is something new in Louisiana, the principle that the public has a right to know what private entities do with public money is not.
For example, in 1984, a private corporation, the World Exposition Authority, wanted to put on a world’s fair in New Orleans. They went to the legislature and got $20 million to help them put on the fair. Later, the Advocate was investigating some alleged wrong doing at the World Exposition Authority and they requested public records. The authority said no, we’re private and you can’t see our records.
The case went to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which said, you took the money, now let the public see how you spent it!
There have been a number of other pertinent cases in Louisiana, all with the same result.
When a private company begins to take on the administration of an entire city and consume 80 percent of the city’s budget, it was only natural that people would want to know what they are doing and who might be pulling their strings.
So, now we will review the requested records and report back to you on what, if anything, is there.
At the Central City News, we want to thank a number of people whose support was so critical:
• The vast majority of the people of Central who have continued to read the Central City News and support its demand that people have access to public records, even when city government is privatized.
• The member newspapers of the Louisiana Press Association, who stood by our newspaper and filed an amicus brief with the court on our behalf.
• Carl Redmond of The Advocate and attorney Lloyd Lunceford for their expertise in public records law and wise counsel.
• Mike Mannino, who made public records requests of the City of Central and shared the information he gathered with us.
• Councilman Ralph Washington, Wayne Messina, and Tony LoBue for standing firmly in favor of the public’s right to know.
• Mr. Will Easley for his advice and guidance.
• To the staff of the Central City News for their loyalty and determination.
• To our able attorneys for their belief in our case and their determination to fight the good fight, no matter how long it took.
Many thanks and best wishes from Community Press, LLC.