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Central WAS NOT Billed for Redaction of Records

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     In a letter to Mayor Watts dated November 12th, Central City Attorney Sheri Morris responded to an article written by Woody Jenkins in a local newspaper last week.  In the article Jenkins claims Ms. Morris’ legal bills to the City “include substantial fees for the time she spent ‘redacting’ her previous bills and then ‘unredacting’ those same bills.”  In her letter Ms. Morris, who only last week was reconfirmed by the City Council as Central’s City Attorney, addresses the entire process undertaken by the City in response to the records request for legal bills.  The letter, presented in its entirety below, explains that by law Central’s attorney-client privilege must be protected, even in a public records request, and that only the City Council and Mayor can waive that privilege.  The letter specifically refutes and calls “false” all claims by Jenkins that the City of Central was charged for the “redacting” or “unredacting” of legal bills.  Ms. Morris asserts that the July and August invoices “refute Mr. Jenkins’ statements.”

Dear Mayor Watts:

    In response to the November 11, 2010, Central City News article subtitled “Blacking Out Billing Records Proves Costly for Taxpayers” by Editor, Woody Jenkins, enclosed please find information to dispute the reckless, false and defamatory allegations published by Mr. Jenkins.

    Attached (see below) is a chronology showing the relevant events regarding the response to the public records request for invoices for legal services and related documents. As you can see, Mr. Jenkins’ statement that repeated requests were necessary for Mr. Mannino to obtain copies of the records is completely false. Mr. Mannino’s request to inspect records relating to the City of Central and the Central Transition District were received at City Hall on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 28, 2010. These requests were for numerous public records, some of which are only maintained in electronic form, spanning a five year period. On the morning of July 30, 2010, Mr. Mannino, Mr. Jenkins and others arrived at City Hall to inspect the requested records. Additionally, Mr. Mannino and Mr. Jenkins were provided with copies of numerous records which they requested.

    Among the records requested were copies of invoices for legal services which contain itemized descriptions of work performed. The invoices were redacted prior to production in order to maintain the attorney-client privilege. While it has been reported by the Central City News in numerous articles that Mr. Mannino has stated, “the attorney-client privilege is not an exception to Louisiana’s Public Records Law”, the section of the public records law entitled “Exceptions,” La. R.S. 4.1, clearly recognizes the attorney-client privilege. 

    Clients have the ability to waive the attorney-client privilege. Unlike a privilege in favor of an individual, a privilege in favor of a public entity must be waived by the governing authority of the public entity, i.e. the City Council with the consent of the Mayor. In order to comply with the time delays in the Louisiana Public Records Law, redacted invoices were provided to Mr. Mannino until the City Council could consider the issue of waiving the attorney-client privilege for the City’s invoices and appropriate actions could be taken concerning the Central Transition District’s invoices.

    The redacted legal bills for all firms which performed legal services for the City of Central and for the Central Transition District were provided as a courtesy to the City of Central by Roedel, Parsons. The process of redacting the bills by using software, which allowed removal of some or all of the redactions at a later date, was time consuming and required the participation of myself, other attorneys and support staff; however, the firm did not charge for my time or for the time of other attorneys or our support staff who worked overtime to assist in redacting the legal invoices.

    At the August 10, 2010 City Council meeting which was the next meeting following receipt of the public records requests, the City Council voted to waive the attorney-client privilege for invoice entries which did not involve matters related to pending or prospective litigation. Once the privilege was waived by the City Council the process of reviewing the invoices to identify information related to pending or prospective litigation began.

    Prior to completion of the review of all invoices, I was requested to participate in a meeting with Mr. Mannino and Council members LoBue and Washington. I believe that the August 20, 2010 meeting was productive resulting in an agreement with Mr. Mannino concerning handling the remaining records requests. At this meeting it became evident that there was a misunderstanding concerning the procedure for reviewing legal invoices.

    At the August 24, 2010 Council meeting, the Council clarified the procedure for reviewing legal invoices. On August 26, 2010, a majority of the Central Transition District (“District”) members agreed to waive the attorney-client privilege for the District’s invoices and the invoices were immediately made available for inspection. By week’s end all invoices for the City of Central were delivered to Steven Stockstill, who indicated he reviewed 691 pages of invoices containing 2,863 billing entries.

    The following statements published by Mr. Jenkins are false: 1) “The bills reportedly include a substantial sum for legal services performed in connection with public records requests for previous legal bills she has submitted”; 2) “Now Morris’ legal bills for July and August to the city include substantial fees for the time she spent ‘redacting’ her previous bills and then ‘unredacting’ those same bills”; and 3) “Morris’ charges for July and August include the time she spent blacking out her bills and then later providing unredacted copies to Mannino.”  Clearly, the July and August 2010 invoices I submitted to the City refute Mr. Jenkins’ statements.

While the invoices for July and August 2010 include substantial charges for services performed in connection with public records requests, these charges relate to 14 separate requests received within a 29 day period.

    If you or any of the Council members have any concerns about the handling of the public records requests or any invoice for legal services, Larry Roedel and I will be happy to meet with you to discuss the charges.

    Very truly yours,

ROEDEL, PARSONS, KOCH, BLACHE, BALHOFF & McCOLLISTER, A L.C.

Sheri M. Morris, City Attorney

CHRONOLOGY

5 Comments

  1. Mike Mannino

    November 18, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    One question. IF we were not billed for redacting, why has this simple request cost so much ? Could it be that attornies bill by the hour and its in their best interest to create as much work as they can ?

    • dave

      November 18, 2010 at 8:37 pm

      Mike, I have read, I have discussed with three attorneys in no way connected to this issue, and even two not from Central, and I have watched carefully all that has transpired. I believe what I reported to be true. You raise questions of “don’t you think it could be this or that” but you don’t give any hard evidence contrary to the issues as presented. I am open to more information if you have it.

  2. Mike Mannino

    November 19, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Dave,
    Again, I’m just saying if we were not billed for all the time it took to go through page by page and look at this stuff, clean it up and redact, what were we billed for and why is the current bill redacted ? Attorney Client priviledge is not a good answer in this case. If it is, then Ms Morris should ask for permission to release as a first step before billing for redacting and then asking for permission to release clean copies. Seems like a waste of money and a way to bill extra hours.

    • dave

      November 19, 2010 at 1:13 pm

      Mike, and everyone,

      Here is the crux of the issue. When the City receives a Public Records Request, the records should be produced in three business days. (As an aside, I am not here to defend the length of time it took for the City to respond to the July 28th requests, nor am I here to discuss whether the Public Records Law and associated time frames was written in anticipation of a request of that magnitude.) In my understanding and based on my discussions with three attorneys with no dog in this hunt, in order to release any document containing references and/or descriptions of conversations between an attorney and a client, our City attorney would have to go to the client and have the client waive attorney-client privilege. To do so requires a City Council meeting be called, properly advertised, and held. In order to do this in 72 hours it would be a special meeting, and we all know that such meetings cost significant dollars.

      If we all agree (and I think we should, but I am not certain we do) that it is the City Attorney’s job to protect the City, and we are asking to view records that we know will have to have Council approval to be released unredacted, would it not be best to simply ask a Council member to put it on the agenda of the next regularly scheduled meeting, at no cost? The Council could then instruct the City’s staff to release the records. I would hope the Council would still ask the attorney to be sure there were no litigation or confidentiality issues in the billing records. The real issue here is not one of a willingness to produce records, it is in the requirement to do so in accordance with the 72 hour deadline while still requiring the City Attorney to do the job she is paid to do, to protect the City’s legal interests.

      I would further suggest that if I were actually interested in finding out what we spent and what it was for, I would ask a Council member to stop by City Hall, look at the billing record and tell me whether I had any concern. He could also let me know whether money was spent on “redactions”. That should satisfy my “72 hour” need for information, and a patient request brought to Council would ensure that I had all of the paperwork I wanted in the long term. I know this is not nearly as exciting a way to go about this, but it is probably the prudent and responsible approach. If a person can’t find even one Council Member willing to go to bat for them (which I would find odd) THEN, make demands. Otherwise, just ask nicely and the result might surprise you.

      If you choose, take the aggressive and legally allowed path of Public Records Requests, but recognize, as demonstrated in this case, that there will always be a price to pay for expediting the process.

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