Administration refuses to provide public documents
March 16, 2017
The Nicholls State University administration is refusing to provide documents regarding a series of meetings held in July to review student funded programs, despite multiple written public records requests. In the opinion of legal experts, this refusal appears to be a violation of Louisiana public records law.
The university has provided information circulated among committee members prior to the meetings, such as an email sent to each vice president including a list of programs being reviewed, and a rubric for the reviewers. But, as of press time, the university has not produced any minutes, score sheets or member lists from three committee meetings held in July reviewing student funded programs and activities on campus.
According to the University’s only written response to records requests, provided on Sept. 23, there were “no meeting(s) of a public body, no committee meetings, minutes or voting records.”
Alex Arceneaux, chief of staff, explained that these meetings were not public meetings.
“Dr. Murphy has authority to convene groups of individuals to help on the day-to-day running of the institution,” he said, adding that the committee represented a broad cross section of campus personnel.
The public status of a document, however, is not dependent upon it being created in relation to a public meeting.
Scott Sternberg, a New Orleans attorney and general counsel for the Louisiana Press Association, said public records are essentially anything created in the performance of a public duty.
According Louisiana statutes, all documents “having been used, being in use, or prepared, possessed, or retained for use in the conduct, transaction or performance of any business performance of any business… performed by or under the authority of the constitution or laws of this state… are ‘public records.’”
“There are plenty of exceptions, but it seems to me that documents like a checklist or ranking of academic programs would be a textbook public record, and it should have been produced immediately,” Sternberg said.
However, both Sternberg and Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, agree that the meetings themselves should have been open to the public.
Sternberg said making major decisions like what programs to cut is not within the day-to-day operations of running an institution.
And any meetings by a public entity, like a college, that appoints a committee that deals with policies that govern that public entity are required by open meetings laws to properly notice and document meetings of that body, he said.
Sternberg said committees like these are the ones that should be open.
“I can’t imagine a more appropriate committee to be open to the public –,” Sternberg said, “given that the survival and policymaking decisions about those programs is of the utmost importance to the students and taxpayers that fund the school.”
According to state statute, “’public body’ means… any committee, subcommittee, advisory board, or task force thereof.”
LoMonte said, “If the president is being asked to open meetings where important decisions are being made and continually refuses to do so, the public should be asking tough questions about why these meetings need to be closed.
“The least openness that the law allows is not a standard that any public agency should shoot for,” he added.
Documenting the proceedings for those who cannot attend is also very important, he said.
“If the minutes are lacking, then the agency is basically running on a trust-me honor system,” LoMonte, said “and we know that government agencies are prone to abusing their authority when they’re not carefully watched.”
At the March 6 Student Government Association Senate meeting, attended by 47 students and faculty voicing their concerns over the yearbook defunding, Ana Pizzolio, news editor for the Nicholls Worth, said she is concerned that the administration is trying to hide something.
Pizzolio made the first attempt to obtain records from the meetings, which Lynn Gillette, provost and vice president for academic affairs, identified as the source of the decision to cut funding for the book. On Sept. 12 she began asking university officials for documents related to the meeting.
“I heard that the administration held meetings during the summer to look over organizations on campus,” Pizzolio said. “There were rumors that it was possible that the university was planning to discontinue some of it without listening to students’ opinions about it. I just wanted to know what was going on, so I put in a request that was completely denied.”
Sternberg said the custodian of public records must at least respond within three days of a records request.
The university failed to respond to Pizzolio’s request within three days. The staff then sent an informal records request by email on Sept. 15 to the university’s coordinator of public records, searching for a response. The students were told the initial request needed further review and consultation. Sternberg then wrote a formal request on behalf of the Nicholls Worth’s staff.
The Nicholls Worth asked for information about the meetings again after the UL System Board officially approved Nicholls request to cut the yearbook fee February 23. The newspaper asked for minutes to the meetings, a list of everyone on the committee meetings and any other documents that may have been sent out to members.
“This isn’t optional,” Sternberg said. “The public has the right to see documents created with the tax and tuition money that funds the university.”
According to SGA Vice President Austin Wendt, who attended the committee meetings, there was a fourth scoring meeting following a presentation from each program or activity being reviewed. Arceneaux said the fourth meeting was meant to gather a consensus of the group.
Along with other programs, Wendt said he remembers La Pirogue yearbook and the Nicholls Worth both in the red section of the score sheet. He said there was no official agenda saying they were going to get rid of the yearbook. He said part of the discussion was about yearbooks fading out at other universities. Wendt believed there was time to improve the yearbook.
“There wasn’t a set agenda that came out and said ‘ok, we’re going to eliminate the yearbook,’” Wendt said. “But based on conversation it seemed like a possibility.