The city of Central has landed in the middle of another public records dispute, a few years after a records battle in the city made its way up to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
David Freneaux, editor of the Central Speaks newspaper, is suing Central’s Mayor Jr. Shelton and other Central officials for violating the state’s public records law. Freneaux has filed dozens of public records requests with the city over the past six months, and he alleges that the city failed to tell him that they withheld some documents while fulfilling his requests.
“I’m not saying that they didn’t give me anything — I’m saying they withheld documents and failed to disclose such,” Freneaux said of the public records suit. “I’m having to take them to court just to get them to tell me what they withheld.”
Shelton, for his part, said the city did not do anything wrong. He maintains that Freneaux’s gripes against him and the city are personal and that he has turned over a new leaf of transparency since taking office in 2014.
“This is the same gentleman that ran against me and lost in the mayor’s race, and it seems as though he can’t get over that,” Shelton said. “There’s nothing to this; we have attempted to give him everything that he’s asked for. He asked for extremely time consuming public records requests.”
Freneaux said he did not find out that any records he asked for had been withheld under exemptions to the law until he asked about it in late October. His lawsuit states that the city’s municipal clerk Mark Miley — a defendant in the case — responded by saying some records Freneaux requested were not public because they were part of pending litigation.
Freneaux then asked for information on each record that Miley had exempted from his request. Freneaux’s lawsuit says he never received a response about which records had been withheld from him and what exemptions they fell under.
The state’s public records law states that when a public agency questions whether documents are subject to disclosure under the statute, the records custodian should “in writing for such record, notify in writing the person making such request of his determination and the reasons therefor.”
The government agency is supposed to send the notification within three business days, and the law states, “Such written notification shall contain a reference to the basis under law which the custodian has determined exempts a record, or any part thereof, from inspection, copying, or reproduction.”
Access to public records has been an issue in the past in Central.
Central’s previous mayor, Mac Watts, went head-to-head with Central City News owner Woody Jenkins over access to public records between 2010 and 2013 because most of Central’s services were privatized under CH2MHill.
Jenkins sued CH2MHill and fought the idea that privatized government services were not subject to the public records law. His case went to the Louisiana Supreme Court, and Jenkins eventually got access to the records via a settlement.
Shelton said Freneaux’s recent requests are numerous and cumbersome, but that the city has tried its best to accommodate them. Public records law says government agencies cannot discriminate about turning over records in a timely matter based on how voluminous a request is or who makes the request.
But Freneaux’s repeated requests have caused manpower problems for the small city, according to Shelton.
The Central City Council passed an ordinance this week that allotted $25,000 in the 2015 to 2016 general fund budget to retain an attorney to handle the city’s public records requests.
Shane Evans, the Central City Council member who introduced the ordinance, is also the chief of investigations for the East Baton Rouge Coroner’s Office. Evans delivered an impassioned speech at the council meeting, in which he referred to a “public records law vigilante” abusing sunshine laws.
Contacted later in the week, Evans said he backs public records laws and believes in transparency in government. But he called public records laws “unfunded mandates” in which the state demands that cities produce records without providing the money or resources to do so.
“We’ve sat quietly, and we’ve sustained lawsuits, and we’ve watched taxpayer dollars get wheelbarrowed out the door for payments to lawyers,” Evans said about Freneaux’s lawsuits. “I believe in public records laws, but it’s still a situation as a council and a small city government that we’ve got to manage. And [Freneaux] can make it expensive, he can.”
Along with the public records suit, Freneaux is pushing to go back to court on the zoning issue.
In August, Freneaux joined Central residents Michael Mannino and Michael Stephens in suing Shelton and the Central City Council, claiming they violated zoning ordinances in signing off on construction of an upscale traditional neighborhood development. State District Judge Wilson Fields dismissed that lawsuit in October, but the three plaintiffs have also filed for a new trial on the suit.
“We didn’t feel like we got our day in court, and we know we can get our day in court,” Freneaux said.
In the plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial, they walk through the problems leading up to the permanent injunction hearing, and they also say the public records lawsuit could lead to “evidence important to” the zoning lawsuit.