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Jindal has unlikely opponent in open-records fight

Wayne Waddell hardly seems the type to take on the state's most powerful politician, but the mild-mannered state representative from Shreveport - the longest-serving current House member - is tenaciously fighting the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal over the state open-records law.

Jindal's efforts to shield his office from the law, while also pushing for government transparency elsewhere, are often at the heart of arguments over the bill. However, Waddell insists it's not a fight about the incumbent: Republican Waddell has been fighting this fight since Democrat Kathleen Blanco was governor.

"It started back in 2006 because I kept wanting to get more information out of the governor's office," said Waddell, 60, who until now was perhaps best known for his work to bring an early voting procedure to Louisiana.

Another north Louisiana lawmaker, Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said Waddell has a reputation for compromising and working to get along with fellow lawmakers. But, Adley added, he doesn't find Waddell's steadfast position on the open-records law surprising. "Wayne is an honorable fellow," Adley said. "And you've got an issue here that goes at the gut of his philosophy."

Adley took up the issue in the Senate.

"I filed a duplicate of his bill simply because I believe he needed support, he needed help," Adley said. "I think he believes deeply in what he's doing and I think he's correct on the issue."

So far, Waddell and Adley have gotten nowhere with the issue. House and Senate committees have voted down their respective bills in the face of opposition from Jindal, although lawmakers revisit the issue next week when the administration offers its own open-records bill.

The Waddell and Adley bills would, in essence, add the governor's office to the state open records law, which was adopted more than 60 years ago. That law contains various exceptions, such as those to protect homeland security or to keep businesses' proprietary matters confidential. And there is an exception for governor's office records that critics say is too broad.

Adley argues that support for the bills should be easy for Jindal, whose campaign stressed ethical, open government and who last year pushed through the Legislature laws requiring more financial disclosure from appointees to various boards and commissions.

"I'm now beginning to wonder, `Why? Why do you protest so much?"' said Adley. "Sooner or later you've got to ask thatquestion. There's no reason to protest this. There's just not. This is good ethical government."

The administration argues the Waddell and Adley bills go too far. The governor's executive counsel, Jimmy Faircloth, said at a House committee meeting that it could squelch open discussion of important issues within the governor's office. "You're going to diminish the quality of the internal debate and the decisions being made," Faircloth said.

Sen. Jody Amedee, D-Gonzales, agreed, saying the governor must maintain a public records exemption to allow for debate among his staff. He also said during a committee hearing on his own, administration-backed bill, that shielding some records from public view "protects the public from being confused" by seeing the working conversations of staff.

"Public officials should be judged by their decisions, not their decision-making process," he said.

Amedee's bill is up for debate Wednesday on the Senate floor. The administration says it opens up more government records, but its ultimate effect is less clear. It would keep from the public any documents "relating to executive deliberations and work product," communications between the governor and his staff and the governor's schedule.

Supporters said that would limit the governor's exemption by defining which records are shielded. However, the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council said it would instead expand the exemption to other agencies that could argue documents they submit to the governor's office are part of his "work product."

Amedee said he would work with senators to tighten the language so other agencies wouldn't fall under the governor's office exemptions. But if that is done, arguments will continue over what should and shouldn't be public record. For instance, backers of the Waddell and Adley bills say the governor's schedules, including meetings with lawmakers and supporters of various issues, should be public.

"In the state of Louisiana, with our checkered history, knowing who is meeting with the governor and who is influencing him goes to the heart of transparency," Carl Redman, executive editor of The Advocate newspaper, said at one recent committee debate on the bill.

The administration counters that making the governor's schedule public raises security concerns.

Waddell meanwhile, hasn't given up on the possibility of reviving his bill. He says state history might have been different had the governor's office been included in the open records law years earlier.

He reasons that a stronger open-records law might have made it easier for authorities to nab former Gov. Edwin Edwards, now imprisoned for corruption in the issuance of state riverboat gambling licenses. Or, he said, it might have been a deterrent to Edwards' wrongdoing.

"If you'd had something like this in place," Waddell said, "he'd have either gone to prison earlier or he'd never have gone at all."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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