Mandeville’s political schism, which pits Mayor Donald Villere and his allies against several members of the City Council, is deep. The animus between the two groups has routinely flared in council meetings, sometimes with shouting and insults, and it is now spreading even further afield.
The most recent hot spot is a public-records request for communications among council members, some of whom feel the request is overreaching and burdensome.
Mandeville resident Guy Stacy asked the city to produce a vast amount of records, including emails and text messages of council members dating back to 2012, even those sent on personal computers and cellphones, as long as they involved city business.
He also requested emails and text messages between members of the council and members of Mandeville’s Financial Oversight Committee, a citizen advisory board created by the council, whose members are frequently at odds with Villere and his administration.
Thursday night, the council directed City Attorney Edward Deano to research state law on some two dozen questions posed by Councilman Ernest Burguières on the propriety of Stacy’s requests. If Deano is unable to answer any of the questions or if the council is unsatisfied with his answers, it will seek an opinion from Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office.
Burguières originally proposed a resolution to seek an AG’s opinion, but Councilwoman Carla Buchholz reminded the council that just last year, a resolution adopted by the council stipulated that AG requests must first go through the city attorney.
“I think we are doing this out of order,” Buchholz said. Earlier in the day, she had issued a blistering statement criticizing Burguières’ resolution.
“This resolution is an embarrassment to the council,” the statement said. “If it passes tonight, we will not only be the laughing stock of the Attorney General’s Office, but we will be remembered as the council that fought a public records request instead of pursuing the transparency and open government we all said we would seek when we first ran for office.”
Even after debate on the resolution was over, Buchholz wasn’t finished.
“I find it curious that this is meeting so much resistance,” she said. She told members of the Financial Oversight Committee — only two of whom were at Thursday’s meeting — that once they agreed to serve on the committee, they were no longer strictly private citizens.
In directing Deano to research the questions, the council deferred consideration of going to the Attorney General’s Office until Aug. 28.
But some questions seem inevitably headed for the state’s top legal official.
“I think there are some questions that need to go to the attorney general,” Deano said.
Many of Burguières’ questions center on the threshold for declaring a document a public record — that is, how much and what type of discussion must take place between two members of the committee for the document to become public.
“How can citizens’ right to privacy and assurances under the Constitution be preserved against illegal search and seizure as they relate to this public records request?” Burguières asked in the resolution.
Stacy’s request remained under the radar until two weeks ago, when the council spent nearly an hour debating it, with a member of the Financial Oversight Committee calling the request “harassment.”
But an attorney working on behalf of the city, Karlin Riles, told the council that emails and texts sent through nonpublic accounts and phones, if they discuss city business, are public record.
She said the council members themselves are the custodians of their records, and if the records are requested, they should be produced. The same rules, Riles said, apply to members of the Financial Oversight Committee.
Riles’ explanation did not mollify some members of the committee or the council.
This is not the first time political foes in Mandeville have battled using public-records requests as weapons. During the 2012 election, resident Mike Waller, a developer and frequent critic of Villere, filed numerous requests with the city and published much of what he found on an anti-Villere website.
Stacy, for his part, has been circumspect about his intentions in filing the request, saying only that he has suspicions that he will share once he has all of the records. But former Councilman Jerry Coogan, a Villere ally whom the mayor appointed to the Financial Oversight Committee, accused members of that committee of possibly violating the state’s open meetings laws by discussing Stacy’s request after a recent meeting adjourned.
Coogan reiterated his complaint before the full council Thursday and said he would drop off the committee until the matter is resolved.
The mayor also pushed for a proposed charter change that would require newly elected, but not inaugurated, council members to abide by laws governing notices for public meetings.
Villere’s foes have not been passive, either. In the past couple of weeks, Waller has filed a new series of records requests, asking for a slew of documents from Villere’s administration.
In an email sent to Waller and copied to reporters, Riles said she was working to gather that information but that it would take time, and the city is “grappling with how to handle requests such as these.”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.