A House Divided | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A House Divided

In a letter dated June 22, Deputy City Attorney Pieter Teeuwissen raised concerns with Hinds County Chancery Judge Patricia Wise about the proposed open-records settlement between Frank Melton and The Clarion-Ledger. The letter was carbon-copied to City Attorney Sarah O'Reilly-Evans, attorney Dale Danks and Clarion-Ledger attorney Leonard Van Slyke.

The letter begins: "Yesterday the City Attorney's office learned from the media that an Agreed Judgment was entered in (Gannett vs. the City of Jackson)." In other words, the first the city attorney's office heard that Danks and Van Slyke had brought their proposed settlement before Wise was when they read about it in a brief devoid of detail printed by The Clarion-Ledger on June 21. This despite the fact that it was the city that was sued.

The letter continues: "How can Frank Melton, individually, enter into a judgment when Frank Melton was only sued in his official capacity? … How is it that Counsel for the Plaintiff and personal counsel for an individual not sued manage to appear before the Court without notice to the party that is sued?"

The problem remains the same as it has been since Danks intervened at the behest of Mayor Melton to handle the public-records lawsuit. Dale Danks serves the city on a contractual basis, and his authority is limited to the cases to which he is assigned.

The Jackson Free Press raised similar concerns in a June 23 letter to City Council—especially about the role Danks should play in overseeing the public-records process.

Sources inside city government now tell the Jackson Free Press that Danks has resigned as outside counsel for the city. This strips him of any official capacity whatsoever; he is now only Melton's private attorney, representing him in unrelated lawsuits with The Clarion-Ledger and former MBN officials Melton may have defamed, among other matters. When Melton is sued in his official capacity, that is a matter for the city attorney's office.

Other sources inside the city tell the JFP that Danks wanted much broader authority over city legal matters, and that there was a power struggle between Danks and City Attorney Sarah O'Reilly-Evans. Like media organizations, individuals in Melton's inner circle seem to rise and fall in his favor. Their disparate influence may explain the mayor's fickle, ever-shifting position on public records.

After weeks of alternating contrition and defiance, Mayor Frank Melton signed a memo on June 21 that directed all department heads to comply with open-records laws.

"This is to inform you that this administration's position with regard to Public Records Requests is one of openness," the memo begins. "The public's right of access is to be liberally construed and exemptions narrowly construed. Doubts should be resolved in favor of openness."

The memo goes on to state: "The fourteen (14) working-day period is the maximum provided by law, and is not to be our standard response time." (Emphasis in original.)

This is an important change over the proposed settlement between Melton and The Clarion-Ledger, as that agreement wants responses "as soon as practicable but no later than fourteen (14) days."

That settlement may now be in trouble. The City Council went into executive session on Tuesday to consider the proposed settlement, but declined to vote on the matter. Deputy City Attorney Pieter Teeuwissen, who briefed the City Council on the proposed settlement, said: "City Council is interested in resolving the lawsuit filed by The Clarion-Ledger. The council has re-emphasized that their position is that the city should comply with open-records laws."

Melton did not attend Tuesday's executive session.

Now, sources inside the city tell the JFP that the City Council is reluctant to approve the proposed settlement drafted by Danks and Van Slyke, and is considering an alternative that would be much narrower in scope.

Previous Comments

ID
172519
Comment

STUNNING.............

Author
ChrisCavanaugh
Date
2006-06-28T12:35:14-06:00
ID
172520
Comment

We told y'all this wasn't an open-and-shut settlement, eh? Ooo, and look how little The Clarion-Ledger is telling their readers today about how sour their settlement has gone.

Author
ladd
Date
2006-06-28T12:41:02-06:00
ID
172521
Comment

Pieter and Dale used to be partners or associates in Danks and Teeuwissen before the firm broke up. Pieter is a Tougaloo graduate and was a personal injury lawyer with Byrd and Associates when I was there too. Pieter's daddy was a teacher at Tougaloo and Pieter grew up on the campus. Furthermore, Pieter is smart and thoughtful and knows all about conflict of interest and many other things. As I understand the conflict of interest concept, the key to avoiding it with multiple clients is to make sure that all parties agree to whatever resolution is achieved. How can they agree when one is left completely in the dark. I can not believe Danks was dumb or low down enough to try to pull this off. I hope the city files a bar complaint against him. I have never been impressed by the x-mayor's intellect. Truth be told Pieter had a lot to do with those cases that Danks won against the city in recent years that are so often talked about. I knew Pieter would be a great asset to the City of Jackson as an attorney.

Author
Ray Carter
Date
2006-06-28T13:12:39-06:00
ID
172522
Comment

Well, we knew that part stunk when we read the proposed settlement that The Clarion-Ledger posted a few weeks back. I'm really surprised their attorney went along with this, too. Shouldn't he have known this wasn't going to fly? I'm no expert, but hell.

Author
ladd
Date
2006-06-28T13:15:17-06:00
ID
172523
Comment

The concern of the clarionledger's attorney is the concern of the clarion ledger only. However, I think he should have been concerned about making sure the resolution was one that would stick without being overturned. With this in mind, I suspect he relied too heavily on Dank's and Melton's words and representations. But I wouldn't be surprised if he weren't confused too by Danks' role in lieu of O'Reilly's in the matter. But I can't stress enough that I'm in the dark about the going-ons on the matter. It is possible that all parties agreed to settle on terms amicable to all then Melton, Danks and and ledge's lawyer decided to overlook the city when getting approval by the judge. This too was wrong in my judgment. Judge Wise is no dummy either and it would surprise me if this got past her. She has stopped the settlement of a many cases based on lawyer error.

Author
Ray Carter
Date
2006-06-28T13:42:18-06:00
ID
172524
Comment

That's what never made sense to me. Why get all excited about a so-called "settlement" so clearly riddled with problems? I talk to the Ledger reporter about this, but he didn't bother to print any of it. Sigh. If you're going to do a "settlement" that will, de facto, apply to everyone, do it right in the first place. And making a deal with Mr. Danks and Mr. Melton on behalf of the city didn't make a boatload of sense on many levels. They were asking for problems.

Author
ladd
Date
2006-06-28T13:52:20-06:00
ID
172525
Comment

Frank can't agree to a decision in this case, since he's not being sued as Mayor. Right?

Author
Ironghost
Date
2006-06-28T14:22:17-06:00
ID
172526
Comment

Is this the begining of the end for Melton's reign of terror? I am bittersweet on this issue because one side of me has hope that the city that Melton built will start to dissolve and mayby we can get our city back. The other side of me feels like we have lost a year to folly and foolishness. The city attorney's office is as good a starting place as any to show Melton his place in this municipal government. I hope that he dosen't sweet talk his way out of this and persuade the city attorney to back off.

Author
lance
Date
2006-06-28T17:07:04-06:00
ID
172527
Comment

Yes, Lance, but we have not been impressed with the city attorney, either. A lot of the public-records logjams have come from that office. I don't believe for a minute that Melton stopped them from filling all these requests. If they mean it, they should fill our requests asap, and stop dragging their feet. Right now, I don't trust any of them—and I haven't seen evidence that City council members have the courage to take care of this on their own. It looks to me like everyone wants to point fingers at everyone else, and then say there is nothing they can do about it.

Author
ladd
Date
2006-06-28T17:09:18-06:00
ID
172528
Comment

I have been hearing of the power struggle between O'Reilly-Evans and Danks since he came on board with the city. I agree Ladd that the city attorney's office has been less than stellar. I have filed for open records and still have not received any response either. I had hoped that they would at least honor an average Joe like myself, but I guess that I was wrong. I believe that at some point all of the cowards will back themselves into a corner and someone will accidently do something positive. All that is needed is for someone to get the ball to rolling. I am still hopeful that the AG's latest investigation will yeild some results that will slow Melton's roll.

Author
lance
Date
2006-06-28T17:24:57-06:00
ID
172529
Comment

How can Judge Wise do anything concering the City of Jackson when her husband works for the City?

Author
ChrisCavanaugh
Date
2006-06-29T07:50:16-06:00
ID
172530
Comment

The Clarion-Ledger is finally reporting today that their settlement efforts with the mayor/city are in trouble ... or they're sort of reporting it. Reporter Chris Joyner leads his story saying they are planning to go to court now because requests have gone unfilled, which as I understand it is not a new development. They kind of bury the part that indicates that their settlement with the mayor/Danks is not flying with the City Council so far—and never mention this letter from the City Attorney's office (PDF linked in story above) complaining about how their settlement was done. So it would appear that they're writing around the fact that their settlement is just not coming to fruition. So now The Clarion-Ledger is doing what they should have been doing all along—going to court to get the city to comply with the law, not negotiating a settlement with only one of the parties sued. It is funny to see that, in this story, Melton is playing good guy on public records. Sigh. Boy, there's a lot missing from this story about what's really going on. Brian has more info, and PDFs, on the way. Keep an eye out.

Author
ladd
Date
2006-07-01T16:18:09-06:00
ID
172531
Comment

The way it read to me, the reporter would have you believe it was all the City Clerk and City Councils fault - which is far from the truth! This all lies in the hands of the mayor and his legal department.

Author
pikersam
Date
2006-07-01T18:02:24-06:00

Thanks to all our new JFP VIPs!

COVID-19 has closed down the main sources of the JFP's revenue -- concerts, festivals, fundraisers, restaurants and bars. If everyone reading this article gives $5 or more, we should be able to continue publishing through the crisis. Please pay what you can to keep us reporting and publishing.

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

comments powered by Disqus