Citizen wins ethics case against city over records request for LBGTQ promotion documents

Published 10:57 am Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The City of Natchez violated a portion of the Mississippi Public Records Act on three counts and should be reprimanded, a hearing officer for the Mississippi Ethics Commission recommends in a preliminary report dated July 12.

The infractions include failure to provide public records in a timely manner, failure to provide a timely written denial to a public records request and failure to provide a copy of meeting minutes or to show proof that those minutes had been provided to a requestor in a timely manner.

“The Ethics Commission should order the City of Natchez, through its officials and employees, to strictly comply with the statutory deadlines and procedures set forth in Section 25-61-5 (of the Mississippi Public Records Act),” writes Sonia Shurden, hearing officer for the Mississippi Ethics Commission.

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The recommendation came in response to a complaint filed with the Mississippi Ethics Commission against the city by Roy F. King III on May 3.

On April 12, King had submitted a public records request to the city seeking:

  • A copy of a proposed non-discrimination ordinance the city was considering adopting;
  • A Mississippi Attorney General’s ruling on whether Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell could legally provide $1,000 in taxpayer money to help fund a five-day LBGTQ event in the city; and
  • All records of any discussions, handwritten or computer-generated notes, copies of emails and text messages … among members of the Natchez Mayor and Board of Alderman pertaining to allowing Grennell the use of taxpayer money to help fund the event.
  • Under the Mississippi Public Records Act, the city is required to produce or deny production of public records within seven working days of the date of receipt of the request and allows up to 14 working days for production of public records when the public body provides a written explanation to the person making the request why the records cannot be produced in seven days.

    Written denials of public records must be produced within seven working days after receiving the request with an explanation for why the records cannot be produced.

    When King did not receive a response to his initial April 12 request for the records, King said he hand-delivered a follow-up letter to the law office of Natchez City Attorney Robert Latham on April 29 and told the attorney he had not yet received any response from the city on his initial request.

    April 29 was the Confederate Memorial Day state holiday and city hall was closed, King said, so he hand-delivered a follow-up letter to city hall on April 30, stating he had not yet received a response to his request.

    King said he was met in the lobby by an assistant city clerk who gave him a copy of the proposed ordinance, which by that time had been published in The Natchez Democrat and tabled by the Mayor and Board of Aldermen.

    “This is what Mr. (Latham) … told me to give you,” King said the assistant clerk told him. “We aren’t going to give you the emails, text messages or other notes.”

    King then filed his ethics complaint on May 3.

    In the city’s response to the complaint filed with the ethics commission, the city states it provided a copy of the proposed non-discrimination ordinance that had been tabled but was unaware of any records of discussions, handwritten or computer-generated notes, emails or texts pertaining to the proposed ordinance.

    The city also contended King is not entitled to an Attorney General’s Opinion on the issue and that portion of the complaint is not under the Mississippi Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction.

    “The City of Natchez delivered to Roy F. King a copy of the minutes of the board meeting wherein the approval was made by the board for the mayor to use a $1,000 of his advertising funds to sponsor the event in question,” the city writes in its response and added that the city is unaware of any discussions outside of the meeting pertaining to funding the event.

    King said he never received a copy of the minutes.

    “They owe me letters of denial,” King said about the items the city said it did not have to give him. “And the minutes.”

    As a penalty, Shurden’s recommendation report states, the Ethics Commission should:

  • Order the city of Natchez provide the King with a copy of the meeting minutes approving Grennell’s use of advertising funds or to show proof that those minutes had already been provided within seven days of the issuance of the final order.
  • Order the City of Natchez, through its officials and employees, to strictly comply with the statutory deadlines and procedures set forth in Section 25-61-5.
  • King said he felt good that the hearing officer had sided in his favor on the three points.

    “It is nice to stand up and do the right thing when you have to,” King said. “It is nice to win.”

    Either party has five days of receipt of the preliminary recommendation report to file any written objections to the preliminary recommendation report and any factual questions raised would be presented to a hearing officer at a hearing tentatively set for 10 a.m. Oct. 16 at the Mississippi Ethics Commission office in Jackson.

    Latham said failure to meet the deadlines of providing the requested information to King or to send written responses by the deadlines were honest mistakes.

    “I thought they had actually been given to him,” Latham said, adding he had requested that the city clerk provide the information, including the non-discrimination ordinance and the minutes and any communications even though he was not aware of any outside texts or memos regarding the $1,000 payment for the LBGTQ event.

    “If you can find some, go ahead give it to him,” Latham said he told the clerk of any notes, emails or texts relating to the expenditure.

    Later Latham said he learned, too, that the minutes had not been transcribed in a timely manner and were not available when King had requested them and therefore were never provided to King.

    “It was absolutely no effort on anybody’s part to keep him from getting that information,” Latham said.

    Complicating the matter, Latham said, was that city clerk Megan Edmonds had recently resigned and the city was in between clerks. Therefore, the clerk’s office failed to provide the written response to King in a timely manner as outlined by law, Latham said.

    “It was just an honest mistake,” Latham said. “I didn’t anticipate filing an objection. If we had a hearing, I would tell them it was just a mistake.”