PLAQUEMINE — White Castle officials were schooled Friday on the state’s public records laws by a district court judge who ordered the town to turn over copies of a slew of documents to two residents some officials accused of harboring a vendetta against the mayor.
“I don’t think the situation is as bad as I initially thought it was, but we should be considering the request and not the motivation behind it,” state District Judge Alvin Batiste said from the bench after an exhaustive day of testimony. “All this is about is getting what you’re entitled to by law.”
June Landry and Garnell Young filed a lawsuit in November against Mayor Gerald Jermarr Williams and Town Clerk Monica Hamilton, accusing them of not adhering to the state’s public records law and asking the judge to order the officials to produce the numerous records they’ve requested.
Landry and Young had asked for copies of court transcripts from another civil proceeding the town was involved in, audio recordings of several Town Council meetings, town audit reports, minutes from Town Council meetings, financial statements and a list of the mayor’s travel expenses from 2011-14, their attorneys, Charlotte McDaniel-McGehee and Seth Dornier, said in the lawsuit.
Town Attorney Valencia Vessel-Landry had argued the plaintiffs’ “weekly and oftentimes biweekly” requests for public records were attempts to intimidate and harass the mayor and town clerk after Landry and Young were defeated in the town elections in 2014.
Before 2015, town officials testified, they had never received public records requests.
The trial resumed Friday after it had been halted Jan. 27 when Hamilton took ill on the stand during her testimony.
After Batiste’s ruling Friday, Vessel-Landry admitted town officials made a few mistakes in handling the records requests. She also said she considered Batiste’s ruling fair.
“We’re learning our lesson the hard way,” she said in a interview after court. “And we’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Batiste told town officials it doesn’t matter how many public records requests are filed; the town clerk, and any other elected or appointed official, is obligated to respond to any and all requests in writing and must cite legal statutes when claiming certain documents don’t fall within the purview of the state’s public records laws.
After hearing conflicting testimony from town officials regarding how Landry and Young’s requests were handled, the judge also advised Hamilton and the mayor to implement a policy, to be adopted by the Town Council, outlining how all future records requests will be handled.
During the trial, Landry testified the mayor prohibited her from recording a Town Council meeting. The mayor defended his actions by claiming all the council’s meetings were recorded on the audio system installed at Town Hall.
However, Williams also admitted in court the town’s audio system has not properly worked in over a year — hence the reason the town could not produce the audio records of the meetings Landry had requested.
Batiste ordered the town to allow the public to record town meetings. “There is nothing in the Open Meetings Law that prohibits citizens from recording open public meetings,” he said.
As for civil penalties, fines and attorney fees associated with the lawsuit, all parties are to report back to court in April after the town has furnished a copy of its fiscal year budget to the court and the attorneys for the plaintiffs have provided the judge an itemized breakdown of their fees.
“I don’t think the ruling was unduly harsh,” Dornier said. “This wasn’t about hate or ‘sour grapes’ our clients felt about losing elections. It was about an individual’s fundamental rights.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.