PLAQUEMINE — The town of White Castle will have to cough up about $13,000 in taxpayer money to pay civil penalties, court costs and attorney fees for two residents who sued the town last year for not compiling with the state’s public records law.
But at least one of the plaintiffs in the case feels state District Judge Alvin Batiste should have forced the town to dig deeper into its coffers if the objective was to teach top officials a valuable lesson they should already have known before entering office.
“Not for our gain but the town’s gain,” June Landry said Thursday morning following Batiste’s decision. “I guess he felt if he made a high judgment for us, it would hurt the taxpayers because it’s coming out of (the town’s) budget.”
“When we started this thing, we didn’t think we would get any monetary settlement,” she said. “We did it for them to do what they are supposed to do: follow the law.”
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 when the town refused to turn over 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 said.
Young did not return calls Thursday seeking his reaction to the settlement.
Town Attorney Valencia Vessel-Landry had argued the plaintiffs’ requests for public records on a weekly basis — and sometimes even more often than that — were attempts to intimidate and harass the mayor and town clerk after June Landry and Young were defeated in the town elections in 2014.
However, Batiste in March ruled the plaintiffs’ motivations for filing the records requests were irrelevant because the town is obligated under Louisiana law to respond to any and all requests for documents. And they are required to cite when certain documents don’t fall within the purview of the state’s public records laws, the judge said in his ruling.
All parties had to return to court Thursday for Batiste’s decision regarding monetary rewards in the case.
Batiste ordered the town to pay $5,000 for each for the two attorneys — Charlotte McDaniel-McGehee and Seth Dornier — who represented the plaintiffs in the case. The judge also said the town must pay June Landry and Young $5 a day (excluding weekends and holidays) for time spans the town withheld records from them and/or didn’t properly respond to their requests.
For June Landry, that works out to approximately $1,500 for Jan. 20, 2015, to March 31, 2016. And Young is set to receive about $1,200 for the unanswered requests he filed between March 10, 2015, and March 31, 2016.
“We’re not happy about what has occurred, but we believe it was a fair decision,” said Vessel-Landry, the town’s attorney. “It’s an expensive lesson we had to learn.”
Vessel-Landry said attorneys for the plaintiffs had asked the court for $40,000 in fees, which Batiste shot down.
“The judge said he found that to be exorbitant. … We’re just happy it wasn’t more money,” Vessel-Landry said
McDaniel-McGehee said she and Dornier are reviewing similar cases to compare civil penalties and attorney fees other judges have awarded.
“From what I’ve looked at, White Castle’s attorneys made $19,000 on this case,” she said Thursday afternoon. “I understand the judge’s need to balance what’s going to affect the town on White Castle, but I believe what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.