Mayo’s fight to hide Reggie Brown’s records undermines his effectiveness

Whenever government officials attempt to operate in the dark, suspicions are raised. Over the years, we’ve had to go to court to force local governments to produce public records. Citizens who take the government to court over freedom of information requests rarely lose if the records they request exist, are not in use, and do not reveal confidential personnel data.

Usually, local governments respond quickly to record requests, until something is requested that they want to hide. Then, there is a combination of actions they use that usually include delaying tactics, deceptions, and lawsuits.

Presently, the Mayo administration is embroiled in a records dispute involving Corporal Reginal Brown, the interim Police Chief of the city.

Apparently, some citizens fear that Brown may be named the permanent Police Chief. Some, who claim to be familiar with his police department history, say Brown has had difficultly passing field training tests. They have heard rumors that he failed his training tests twice and had his career salvaged by being selected as a personal driver for the mayor and then made a communications officer.

They claim that the last time the department picked a low ranking person and made them chief of police over qualified staff there were major morale problems in the department that has resulted in over 50 officers leaving the department. They also claim that Brown has never been on the firing line or commanded officers. They say he has desk experience only. So, they want to see Brown’s public records to support their claims.

A local man, Nicholas Farrar, concerned with the issue, filed a records request on January 21st, reportedly seeking to look at Brown’s public internal affairs reports. In 2008, The First District Court of Appeals ruled in similar request involving the city of Baton Rouge that such records were public as long as personal information of the officer were not included.

The Ouachita Citizen and businessman Eddie Hakim also made requests similar to Farrar’s: narrow, and specific to one person.

At first, the request filed by Nicolas Farrar was given the usual delay tactic. He was told it would take 5-10 days to pull the record and delete Brown’s personal information.

When it came time to produce the records, the city chose to file suit against Farrar, and the Ouachita Citizen challenging both requests. Of course, that challenge would delay the request but eventually the city will lose because the request meets the requirements of the law, supported by the City of Baton Rouge appeals court ruling.

Then the City came up with a trick. The appeals court ruled that a request for internal investigation records must be specific and not broad. What would happen if someone made a request that was ridiculously broad and that request was mixed in with the legitimate requests of the Ouachita Citizen, Mr. Hakim and Mr. Farrar?

No one knows how it happened, but mysteriously, out of the blue, Gwendolyn Dickson, a person listed on Mayo campaign finance reports as a paid worker, filed a very broad request for all internal records of all officers including 15 who are retired and two of whom are dead, a total of 45 records.

Then in a fancy move, the city included Dickson in the suit it filed against Farrar, Hakim and the Ouachita Citizen and now claims that the combined requests are too broad and should be thrown out.

By merging Farrar’s narrow and restricted request for one record with Dickson’s fake request for the files of all officers, even dead ones, the city hopes to persuade a judge to throw out Farrar’s request.

What complicates it, even more, is that Mrs. Sturdivant, the city attorney, has a conflict of interest because her husband is one of the officers included in Dickson’s request. She has a personal interest in protecting her husband’s file. If she has knowledge that her client had anything to do with Dickson’s “fake” request, the Bar Association will probably be interested in her explanation.

It just goes to show the extent that the government will go to keep things it wants to remain secret from public view.

The city attorney’s job is to advise the mayor concerning the law. Here’s what the appeals court ruled which is the case law on this subject:

“Although police officers may have a legitimate privacy interest in certain narrowly circumscribed portions of files concerning their off-duty private conduct, they do not enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to records concerning only how they discharge their official duties.”

The court ruling gave a clear definition of what’s private: private phone number, social security number, photographs of the officer or his home address, driver’s license or medical information.  It means that Farrar’s request will be upheld by the courts because it is narrow, involves only one record and asks for no personal or private information.

Sturdivant, if she’s worth her salt, has informed the mayor of the law. However, she doesn’t make the final call. Her client, the mayor, gives her the marching orders; if she is proceeding with the suit, it is on his instruction. The end result will either get Farrar’s request thrown out because it is mixed in with Dixon’s request and is too broad or lose it based on the Baton Rouge decision. No matter what, it will amount to a delaying tactic to frustrate Farrar and the Citizen.

If Farrar, Hakim and the Ouachita Citizen win, the city will have to pay their legal bills. If Dixon loses, she’ll have to pay her own attorney fees and court costs.

Farrar has asked the city council to seek an attorney general’s opinion. It probably won’t happen.

The issue shows the extent that the Mayo Administration will go to keep citizens from gaining access to legitimate public records. The idea of getting a campaign worker to make a “fake” request for the records of the retired and even the dead really pushes the envelope.

Farrar’s fight is newsworthy because of the expense and time the city is willing to spend to hide Mr. Brown’s performance records.

The entire dispute puts a cloud over the head of Corporal Brown. Farrar doesn’t know what the records contains, he, Hakim and the Citizen want to see if the rumors are true.

The extensive fight the city is waging sows the seeds of doubt.

It has the ultimate effect of undermining Interim Chief Brown’s effectiveness to lead the department.

It would be better to release the records and let the chips fall where they may.