Gretna officials have denied a public-records request seeking to find out how much the city spent to settle a protracted legal dispute with a local resident that began with an illegal fence and grew into seven lawsuits in both state and federal courts.
The dispute, which at one point in 2014 was reported already to have cost the city $200,000, came to a conclusion this month when all the lawsuits were settled.
U.S. Magistrate Court Judge Daniel Knowles signed an order placing the agreement that ended the suits under seal.
All of the suits were filed by Mark Morice and his wife over the demolition of their fence and several public-records requests he made of the city.
The New Orleans Advocate submitted a public-records request for checks or any other records of payments made to Morice or his attorneys this year, but it was refused.
John Litchfield, who represented the city in the litigation, said such items “would arguably be deemed confidential by the terms of the stipulated protective order of the U.S. District Court.”
Litchfield added that while there is no reference to checks in Knowles’ April 11 order, it clearly directed the parties “to protect the confidentiality of the settlement agreement.”
“Although there is much to the agreement,” he wrote, “one of the key elements would be the nature of the financial terms.”
In an interview, however, Litchfield said he has spoken with Mayor Belinda Constant about whether the City Council could discuss in executive session next month whether to ask the judge to reconsider the order to seal all aspects of the settlement.
Word of a settlement first broke in February, but Constant noted at a recent council meeting that it had at last become final.
In a written statement, she acknowledged that the dispute, which started before her term as mayor, had become costly. “In agreeing to this settlement, we relied heavily on the fact that litigation is a very expensive thing,” she said. “We are happy to be able to move on to more productive work for the benefit of our citizens.”
Resident Laurie Ledet said she was dismayed that the cost to taxpayers was kept under wraps.
“It certainly doesn’t look good or feel good to not be told how much money was paid. That’s what I’d like to know,” she said, calling the whole affair a “debacle.”
Constant said she wanted to make her public statement for the sake of transparency but that she has no choice but to stay mum on details of the settlement.
“This is something that routinely happens,” she said of the order. “This is not unusual for a court case or several court cases to be handled that way, and I’m bound by a federal judge’s order.”
The dispute started in 2010, when the city told Morice, a lawyer, that the fence around his Willow Drive home exceeded the city’s 6-foot height limit by 2 feet.
Morice refused to take it down and was found in violation in Municipal Court. He appealed that decision to state court, but the city tore down his fence before the appeal could be heard.
Morice won his case but said the city then refused to compensate him for his fence and other damages. He also sued the city for not presenting public records in a timely manner after he filed a request to find out whether Gretna City Attorney Mark Morgan also had a fence that exceeded the limit.
The two sides have battled both in state court, with four suits over public records and a fraud suit over the $1,850 lien the city put on Morice’s property, and in federal court, where Morice filed suits saying the city violated his civil rights.
Morice won the four public-records suits in state court, with Judge Scott Schlegel, of the 24th Judicial District, finding the city did not respond in writing as required by law. Schlegel ordered both sides to agree on a settlement amount, and Gretna appealed the decision.
Both sides have been accused of drawing out the dispute. There were periodic attempts to settle it earlier, but they failed.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.