It may sound crazy to someone who doesn’t regularly participate in the decision-making process of the government that people like me would feel the need to be informed about what government officials are doing in our name and at our expense.
Those of us who actively participate in the process are generally labeled by public officials and their supporters as being disruptive; unruly troublemakers hell bent on tearing the community apart. It’s a common attitude that people like myself face and it scares away many people who may be interested in what the government is doing.
That was the attitude I faced from a small-town clerk in Welsh, Louisiana Tuesday when I made a public records request for documents pertaining to the creation of a separate bank account the town had set up outside of the general fund for the collection of certain fines and fees.
The account did not include a line item on the budget to track it and it appeared that the chief was overspending his budget by more than five percent without making the necessary amendments. It was a simple mistake that would have been easily corrected.
In this instance, the clerk seemed upset that anyone would even question her, even though I never accused her of anything and truly believed the mistake could easily be corrected. I only asked to see the record so that I could make my own educated decision, but I don’t think the clerk respected that and she was sure to let me know.
This record’s request was unlike anything I have ever seen before, and I’ve been making public records request for at least 15 years. The clerk, Stephanie Benoit, began our interaction by being rude on the phone when I called to follow up on the records request that I sent to the city’s email account. She told me that she had heard of me and what I do but didn’t really elaborate about what she meant. Her attitude continued when I arrived at the town hall to inspect the records with my four-year-old granddaughter.
The clerk greeted me at the town hall with two police officers in tow, which seemed somewhat ominous. She was nice at first but when I asked about the separate account and how the money was being transferred, she freaked out.
She started screaming at me in front of my granddaughter about how she had heard about me at the clerk schools and that she knew my motives. It scared the heck out of my little granddaughter who is still talking about the lady in Welsh that yelled at her Maw-Maw.
But I kept my cool, asserted my rights, and fortunately made it home safely – having performed my public duty to hold our government accountable to the people they serve.
It’s a good feeling when situations like this work out and I was proud of myself for standing strong but I wondered how many other people were in that building before me that weren’t successful in getting access to the records?
I thought about the little old lady who might wander into city hall and ask to see the budget. I wondered how that little old lady might feel if she were greeted by a clerk who has two armed body guards?
How would she respond if she were told she could not make a copy of a record or take a photograph in a public building or document her interactions with these people? The likely scenario is that the little old lady, facing this type of intimidation and ineptitude, would leave with nothing. That’s why making public records requests is important and that’s why we should all do it more often.
Call Welsh Town Hall Tel: 337-734-2231
Benoit, who has been receiving calls from people who have seen the video below on YouTube, responded on her Facebook page that she would have gladly given me the records had I only been a resident of Welsh. Instead, I live in Crowley, which is about 20 miles from Welsh, which is why she had to call the cops on me.
Read for yourself.