The city is headed to court with The Clarion-Ledger over public records, where the city faces likely defeat. The city's violations of the Public Records Act are numerous.
On Aug. 7, The Clarion-Ledger published an unsigned editorial explaining its decision to go to court. "This is not a Clarion-Ledger vs. City of Jackson business, legal dispute. We are taking this action for open government in the public's interest," the editorial stated. This is a laudable goal and one that the Jackson Free Press supports wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, there are some interesting holes in the rest of that editorial.
It continues: "Jackson Mayor Frank Melton reached an agreement with the newspaper to follow the law and to follow procedures to help facilitate the city's handling and compliance of records requests. However, repeated attempts to reach an agreement with the City Council failed."
This is a distortion of why the issue is headed to court, instead of to settlement. First, ultimate responsibility for the dispute lies with Melton, who encouraged or at least tolerated the city clerk's indifference to records requests. This was a man who tore information requests from The Clarion-Ledger in half in the city clerk's office. Some of the blame goes to the city attorney's office as well. As Goliath put it: "It is obvious the city legal department is hostile to open government."
More to the point, the reason why the proposed settlement collapsed was not that City Council was intransigent. Rather, the settlement hit roadblocks because Melton's private attorney, Dale Danks, and Clarion-Ledger attorney Leonard Van Slyke drafted it without consultation with the city attorney's office. In a June 22 letter from Deputy City Attorney Pieter Teeuwissen to Hinds County Chancery Judge Patricia Wise, the city attorney's office objected to being excluded from the settlement process. Danks and Van Slyke went before Wise with the proposed settlement without input from the city attorney's office, even though the city was a party to the suit and Melton was sued only in his official capacity. Still, early Clarion-Ledger stories on the settlement reported that the city and the paper had reached a settlement and that final agreement was imminent—and that Melton's attorney, Danks, would be the likely overseer of the public-records process—a possibility that the JFP objected to in a letter to City Council.
Sources inside the city have told the JFP that the city attorney's office thought the consent decree was too broad, as it went beyond the requirements of the law. On June 25, the city attorney's office urged the City Council to reject the proposed consent decree in favor of a narrower agreement that simply directed the city release the records and follow the law.
Oddly, the Aug. 8 Goliath editorial directed its ire squarely at Council President Ben Allen, chiding: "Jackson City Council President Ben Allen has called our efforts ‘silliness' that he says the city wants to put behind it before the dispute goes to court. However, we believe open government is an essential ingredient to good government. What is silly is wasting taxpayers' money trying to prevent taxpayers from having access to their own government. The way to put the dispute behind is to follow the law."
Yet, Allen did not call The Clarion-Ledger's efforts "silliness." His quote was actually: "We want this open-records silliness behind us," he said, when pledging to work toward a solution. "We don't want to go to court, I can tell you that."
On Aug. 14, Allen further explained his position to the JFP: "The posture of both sides, both the city and The Clarion-Ledger, needs to be worked out like adults. The silliness is not just on the part of The Clarion-Ledger. The silliness is also on the part of the city as well. If you go back to the historical beginning of this whole process, it developed a life of its own, and the main theme was no longer the main theme. It became a battle of wits, and I think we need to get it behind us.
"The settlement we gave (The Clarion-Ledger) addressed the issues they sued us for," Allen continued. Allen explained that the earlier settlement went far beyond the city's obligations under the law.
In essence, Danks and Van Slyke drafted a settlement without including the city attorney. The city attorney would never have agreed to the terms of the settlement, so city council rejected it in favor of a narrower settlement. The Clarion-Ledger insisted on sticking with the settlement it had drafted with Danks, which was more favorable. Now, they are headed to court.
By placing faith in the Melton-Danks settlement, Goliath may well have squandered its best opportunity for an open-records settlement with the city. Blaming that decision on City Council makes no sense. We wish them the best in court. We'd really like to see the city start complying with the law.
Thanks Brian for this excellent article. I have been trying to find the key to why this whole problem puzzled me and you are helping to provide me with that key.
Yeah, the part where they try to turn this mess on City Council is remarkable, to say the least. My guess is that The Clarion-Ledger is embarassed because it missed the part where it needed to be negotiating a settlement with *the city* with attorneys who represent *the city* ... like the city attorney's office. Then, it seems they jumped the gun and reported their big so-called settlement as if they had an agreement with *the city*, when their agreement was only with with the mayor's personal attorney, who they were, early on, saying might be put in charge of all public-records request for *the city*.
A pooch got screwed here somewhere, and now the Ledge is trying to blame City Council.
Tsk, tsk, Ledge.