Farming Out the ‘Big Job' | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Farming Out the ‘Big Job'

June 7, 2006

*This story also appears in the print edition, on the streets the afternoon of June 7.*

The Clarion-Ledger and the Melton administration reached a proposed settlement to end the paper's suit over public records requests on Thursday, but serious complications remain.

The suit, which The Clarion-Ledger brought in Hinds County Chancery Court on Tuesday, alleges that the city ignored or denied 12 requests for public records between Jan. 12, 2006, and May 3, 2006, in violation of the Mississippi Public Records Act. Mayor Melton tore at least two of these requests in half in the city clerk's office on May 24.

The Jackson Free Press has filed at least 25 information requests since the Melton administration took office last July, seven of which have been rejected, while 12 have been ignored. The proposed settlement between The Clarion-Ledger and the Melton administration addresses none of these requests.

The settlement, which was drafted by Clarion-Ledger attorney Leonard Van Slyke and Melton's private attorney, former Mayor Dale Danks, would require the city to fill all of the records requests listed in that suit. It would waive the city's obligation to pay legal fees and would direct the $100 fine, which is the maximum that the law allows, to the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information.

The settlement also sets out new terms for the city's response to requests made by The Clarion-Ledger. For instance, the city pledges to either honor or reject requests within the 14-day limit mandated by law. If the city fails to respond within the 14 days, it waives the opportunity to reject the request even if the request is exempt under law. Whenever the city rejects a request, it must refer to the Public Records Act to explain why the refusal is legal—which is already required by law.

The proposed settlement does not address media other than The Clarion-Ledger, and must be approved by the Jackson City Council. This concerns Jackson Free Press Editor Donna Ladd. "The city has to apply the open-records laws absolutely equally. I'm not sure it makes sense for one media outlet to ‘negotiate' on all of our behalf," Ladd said.

There are also indications of discord between the city attorney's office and Danks, who serves as outside counsel but has no formal authority over city matters.

In comments made to WJTV the day before the settlement was announced, City Attorney Sarah O'Reilly Evans vowed to fight the suit in court. She complained about how many requests the media made. She said The Clarion-Ledger had only sued because the mayor tore apart requests, which she called "a knee-jerk reaction," and not because there was a problem "with the flow of documents." She said that a request for details on Melton's trip to the Bahamas was filled May 17.

The Clarion-Ledger reported that this information was not released until June 1, and then it was released to WJTV, which had not requested the information. Evans even said a request filed by Melton himself during his campaign "has not been filled to this day," though the mayor has had authority over the clerk's office for more then 10 months.

The proposed consent decree makes no reference to placing Danks in charge of the public records process, as The Clarion-Ledger reported that same day: "The proposal includes placing Melton's attorney in charge of the public records process to ensure each request receives a response."

Among records requests filed by the Jackson Free Press are three that relate to Danks himself since Nov. 4, 2005, asking for his salary and to view his contract. The requests have not been honored to date.

"One of my primary concerns about this so-called settlement is that Mr. Danks would end up in control of public records. He is not a city employee, and they have not given us any details of his contract so far. How can we trust that he is going to act in the public's best interest starting now?" Ladd said. "And he has been involved on so many sides in lawsuits that we are likely to request even more information that he won't want the public to see."

Danks was mayor of Jackson from 1977 to 1989, after which he frequently sued the city of Jackson. In one case, Danks won a $1 million judgment against the city for flood damage to the Jackson Oak Apartments, a development on a floodplain which Danks himself approved when he was mayor. When the city failed to pay that amount promptly, Danks wrapped City Hall with yellow tape, demanding payment.

At the time that Danks was hired by the Melton administration, he represented the unincorporated city of Byram in a suit against Jackson. He also represented Bobby and Lisa Berryhill of North Jackson in their suit against the city for violating their teen daughter's rights in an arrest. Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct explicitly state that clients must be given "knowing and informed consent" of any conflicts of interest.

"It is clear that Mr. Danks has many possible conflicts of interest here," Ladd said. "Who will watch the fox watching the hens?"

Ward 2 Councilman Leslie McLemore also expressed skepticism about placing Danks in charge of public records requests.

"There's already a process in place that we need to follow ourselves," McLemore said. "I think the real issue here, quite frankly, is that the mayor has been advised by Dale Danks and others that he is violating Mississippi law and that because he's in violation, they're trying to figure out now to make him look better."

"Mr. Melton and The Clarion-Ledger have already been entangled together in several lawsuits—with Mr. Danks as his attorney in all of them," Ladd said.

The City Council refused to put the settlement on the agenda this week as an "emergency" item, thus allowing time to air out the settlement proposal this week.

"I don't know whether it's legal or not to let Danks handle that because I haven't had a chance to do any research on this," Crisler said. "(Melton) did not talk to the council at all about bringing in Danks before he did it. He doesn't talk to the council, and he doesn't care. I mean, when does he care about whether he legally can or cannot do something?"

Danks said Tuesday that Melton had given him the authority to do whatever is necessary to address the problem. "I had hoped that (the consent decree) would have been on (the City Council agenda) today as an emergency item," Danks said, "but in reading the paper today, I found out that there were some who did not want to take it up today as an emergency item. Even though the council has not yet approved it, we have started the process of accumulating a complete list of all the outstanding requests, and we are attempting to contact the various department heads to ensure that we get that documentation."

Danks said the proposed settlement would apply to all other media as well. "The fact that the lawsuit was brought by The Clarion-Ledger does not limit the settlement, and the agreements, and the proposal to streamline the process to just The Clarion-Ledger, but to all media, print and television and radio," Danks said.

The settlement would have to be altered for this to be the case, however. Ladd said the JFP will ask this week to join the "settlement" talks. "I hope the City Council will seek input from the public and the other media before approving a ‘settlement.' The answer should be simply to obey the law," she said.

Previous Comments

ID
172441
Comment

Early edition of the public eye. Will Dale Danks control public records? Will the proposed settlement between The Clarion-Ledger and the city cover other media as well?

Author
Brian C Johnson
Date
2006-06-07T11:40:42-06:00
ID
172442
Comment

Am bumping to front page, Brian. All, note that the URL will later change because it'll come back to Public Eye after its run on the front page.

Author
ladd
Date
2006-06-07T12:32:55-06:00
ID
172443
Comment

I am digging the Public Eye! But, it is really hard to find individual PDF's to read. I know they are in each story; but, a list of the pdf's would really help us find, read, and post as necessary. I can't always remember what article a particular pdf came from. I really have a problem with the fact that Melton's Expense Report from the Bahamas was not dated and that it was signed off on by Ward. BTW: I am beginning to hear more and more chatter that Melton and crew are here to bring Jackson down for some ideal that a few of Jackson's elites have for the city. Seems a bit paranoid by those who say this; yet, without a plan, without open communication, and without clear leadership the people will begin to fill in the blanks as they see fit based on current actions. Then if you couple all this with the cast of bitter Jacksonians and inexperienced staff that Melton has hired, this theory looks more valid. Even so, I have a hard time believing this - it is to far fetched. However, I wanted to put it out there to get it off my chest.

Author
pikersam
Date
2006-06-07T14:35:30-06:00
ID
172444
Comment

Pike, we're planning to do just such a list. Well, at least that theory would support the idea that the people in the administration aren't completely incompetent—being that they're succeeding on some front!

Author
ladd
Date
2006-06-07T14:40:04-06:00
ID
172445
Comment

Yeah, bare with me on that one. I'll try to have a list up for you in the next few days.

Author
Brian C Johnson
Date
2006-06-07T15:11:35-06:00
ID
172446
Comment

Well, at least that theory would support the idea that the people in the administration aren't completely incompetent—being that they're succeeding on some front! ladd I didn't look at that way! LOL!

Author
pikersam
Date
2006-06-07T15:26:40-06:00
ID
172447
Comment

The only thing that the consent decree would do that is not already a part of the law would be to hold city officials in contempt of court if they violated the decree. I don't think a non party could use that remedy.

Author
pneville
Date
2006-06-07T16:06:28-06:00
ID
172448
Comment

Donna, Glad the JFP is not interested in having the Clarion Ledger act as the sole arbitrator of Public Records for a City that by it's own legislative initiative adopted the State's Open Records Request. As for any individual, business owner, attorney, investigator or media outlet filing "too many" or "numerous" public records requests - get used to it - that's just part of the job. If they Council accepts the Consent Decree - does the JFP or any private citizen now lose their individual right to due process? What if I'm a private investigator or attorney or clerk for a law firm and file an open records request on a case that quite possibly Danks is the opposing counsel.......the potential conflict is mind boggling. I hope our dear councilmember Allen reads this and considers the ramifications to his fellow business owners in Jackson who may want information, find that their open records request was not honored according to the legislative actions of counsel past - and have to find redress in the Clarion Ledger.....not good and should not be accepted by the council as a settlement. This is much larger than the simple writings of the Ledger would indicate if you read what is not said.

Author
JenniferGriffin
Date
2006-06-07T16:07:06-06:00
ID
172449
Comment

All good questions, JPF. We're working on it. We're going to send a list of our concerns directly to Council, so any other comments or questions are welcome. Also, we are going to request that the language of the settlement, if there ends up being one, is more inclusive than it is now, being that it would apply to everyone. And I'm still worried about Danks' role. It just does not seem appropriate that "outside counsel," be the keeper of public records. I'm surprised The Clarion-Ledger would even consider that. Weird.

Author
ladd
Date
2006-06-07T16:45:15-06:00
ID
172450
Comment

To be honest, why the need for any settlement? The City has adopted the state's Open Records Law.....that should be it - period. If the Council takes any action, it should be to openly express AGAIN that they agree with the State's own proceedures and legislatively adopted guidelines on open records - OR - they could tighten up the City's own policy and respond in a shorter time frame than 14 days. Or better yet, they can take the entire process out of the City Clerk's Office and put it all under the office of the City Attorney and hold them solely accountable. I do somewhat feel for the City Clerk - that person is basically just the paper pusher - he/she doesn't investigate the request, doesn't provide the answers - but does have the responsibility of accepting the filing, maintaining the master file (not just those rejected by the City but ALL the requests including the answers as they are provided) and collecting the fee when the response is ready to be picked up. The idea of a consent decree is laughable in light of legislatively mandated procedure. The idea of a settlement that acts like a consent decree should be fought with all vigor. Let the Ledge take this all the way and get comment and decision from the courts.

Author
JenniferGriffin
Date
2006-06-07T17:34:46-06:00
ID
172451
Comment

I have a problem with these two parties that are in litigation with each are now working out "deals" that willl affect everyone. Melton has not changed his tactics nor does it appear that he will. It looks like the CL is just trying to regain some of the public trust that they have lost. This mayor will push the envelope until it is taken away from him. He has wreckless disregard for anyone outside of his little circle. This issue is not about settling lawsuits but IMO it is about fighting a war between themselves using the public's funds and forum to mkae it look like they really care.

Author
lance
Date
2006-06-07T17:43:37-06:00
ID
172452
Comment

I tend to agree, JFP. It sounds a bit like an attempt at spin by the city—seeking a "settlement" from the bad, old media. There is one remedy: obey the law. And the first step toward that is putting real public information officers in place. Carolyn Redd has mucked that job up from day one, and they seem to think that if they just don't bother having particular PIOs in place, that the media won't ask for so much. *That's* the reason they have so many public information requestions -- because they don't have anyone in that position qualified, or seemingly interested in, getting public information to the public. The right person in that job (or jobs; the PD needs a good one of their own) will deal with most of these requests quickly and efficiently. Then a smaller amount will end up in the city attorney's office. Also, where is the policy from the city attorney's office explaining to city employees how to deal with requests? Betcha it doesn't exist. They haven't been able to provide us one -- ironic, eh? They can't provide the policy of how to get open records.

Author
ladd
Date
2006-06-07T18:00:58-06:00
ID
172453
Comment

If the city cannot provide the policy - showing that the Jackson City Council adopted the State of Mississippi's Open Records laws - then by Mississippi State Legislature legislation the City of Jackson has to produce the requests within a 24 hour period. This might be another good point you put in our presentation to the Council. This puts the issue squarely in the Councils laps and then they have to address it - in fact, the Council will need to immediately get that from their City Attorney or the issue is mute and goes back to State Law as mandated by the State Legislature - adopt the state's Open Records Laws (14 days being the absolute max) or give the public the documents within 24 hours of the initial request. Oh how fun!

Author
JenniferGriffin
Date
2006-06-07T18:15:17-06:00
ID
172454
Comment

I still wouldn't put it past the CL to make themselves the only bunch who'll get public records. It would cut out other media groups, after all.

Author
Ironghost
Date
2006-06-07T21:58:10-06:00
ID
172455
Comment

Oh, I'm sure they would if they could, Iron. I think they expected that so-called "settlement" to fly through Council already. But it didn't, did it? ;-)

Author
ladd
Date
2006-06-07T22:31:54-06:00
ID
172456
Comment

Nope, mainly because the council doesn't trust Melton already. They have a right to be suspicious of anything he does. See, if he'd just acted normally and obeyed the law... :)

Author
Ironghost
Date
2006-06-08T08:43:03-06:00

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