What is the Lafayette Civil Service Board hiding?

by Patrick Flanagan

Andres Landor, right, attempts to address the Lafayette Fire and Police Civil Service Board during its June meeting.

At its June monthly meeting Wednesday, the Lafayette Fire and Police Civil Service Board showed complete disregard not only for the Louisiana Open Meetings Law, but also the public’s right to know.

It all started when the board called an impromptu executive session during Wednesday’s meeting. Despite not having the executive session listed on the meeting’s agenda — as required by state law — the board proceeded with its closed-door meeting. After about 30 minutes, the meeting was opened back up to the public.

Acadiana Advocate reporter Lanie Lee Cook protested the illegal executive session, and the board’s longtime attorney, Candice Hattan, briefly responded that it was to discuss 10 lawsuits. She publicly named only one — the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals' recent opinion in the Cops v. Craft case — another clear violation of the state’s rules for proper executive sessions. Executive sessions must be publicly advertised a minimum of 24 hours in advance, and upon exiting the closed-door session, public bodies are required to cite their reasons for the session. This was not sufficiently done.

Wednesday's meeting grew even more acrimonious when former longtime Lafayette Police Department officer Andres Landor attempted to request a board review of the recent Lafayette PD's Internal Affairs investigation into Sgt. William White, who was recently disciplined for repeatedly using racially charged language — namely the N-word — to describe fellow officers and the public.

Though White wasn’t in attendance, his attorney was, and raised a stink over Landor’s request. White’s attorney, Allyson Prejean, is married to White’s direct supervisor in the Metro Narcotics division, Dwayne Prejean. Conflict of interest?

Landor was essentially muzzled by the board in his attempt to request a civil service review of White’s Internal Affairs case, and what many see as insufficient disciplinary measures rendered by Police Chief Jim Craft. Though Craft won’t publicly state the terms of White’s punishment, sources tell The Independent he was suspended for 30 days. At other departments throughout the country, this has proven a terminable offense in a number of instances in recent years. (Read more about White’s use of the N-word here.)

And while all of this was going down during Wednesday’s meeting, The Independent was steadfastly recording, which did not make the board happy. In fact, The Independent was repeatedly instructed by the board to cease recording.

After being denied the opportunity to address his issues with officer White, Landor used the meeting’s public comments section to read a prepared statement on the issue. The Independent continued recording the events, prompting Civil Service Board chairman Jason Boudreaux to again demand a ceasing of the recording. This reporter refused, saying, “If you want me to stop you’ll have to kick me out.”

Boudreaux complied, ordering an officer present at the meeting to escort this reporter from the building.

“Citizens absolutely have the right to record public meetings,” says Louisiana Press Association general counsel Scott Sternberg, an attorney with the New Orleans law firm of Baldwin, Haspel, Burke and Mayer.

The Civil Service Board is a public entity subject to the state's Open Meetings Law, confirms both Sternberg and Robert S. Lawrence, who heads the Louisiana Office of State Examiner, Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service. Lawrence attended Wednesday's meeting.

In support of his position, Sternberg points to Louisiana Revised Statute 43:23A and an opinion from the Louisiana Attorney General’s office.

Here’s what the AG has to say about it:

_September 6, 1995

John J. Molaison, Jr., Esq.
Westwego City Attorney
419 Avenue A
Westwego, LA 70094

Dear Mr. Molaison:

This office is in receipt of your request for an opinion of the Attorney General in regard to taped and video recordings of the meetings of the Mayor and Board of Aldermen of the City of Westwego pursuant to R.S. 42:8 which provides as follows:

A. All or any part of the proceedings in a public meeting may be video or taped recorded, filmed, or broadcast live.

B. A public body shall establish standards for use of lighting, recording or broadcasting equipment to insure proper decorum in a public meeting.

You indicate the City of Westwego currently provides audio recordings of its meetings of the Mayor and Board of Aldermen to the public for review and duplication and thereby avoids the confusion and logistical problems associated with recording by any private citizen present. Also, to avoid disruption the City is considering allocating a defined area of space within which the video taping may take place, but there is concern if this is a reasonable measure or whether it would be an infringement of the public’s right. With these concerns you present the following questions:

1. Do the provisions of La. R.S. 42:8 relative to the video or tape recording, filming, or live broadcasting or public meetings apply to citizens present at such meetings;

2. Assuming that LA. R.S. 42:8 applied to citizens, does the statute require a municipality to allow such recording even where the municipality has provided that public meetings be recorded on audio tape and made available for review or duplication by citizens;

3. Does La. R.S. 42:8 require that any and all persons present at a public meeting be allowed and accommodated to video or tape record such meeting; and

4. What constitutes a reasonable standard for insuring decorum at public meetings within the meaning of La. R.S. 42:8.

While Paragraph (A) of R.S. 42:8 provides that any part of public proceedings “may be video or tape recorded, filmed, or broadcast live”, it is important that this paragraph be read in conjunction with Paragraph (B) that mandates the public body establish standards for the recording. Therefore, in answer to your first question we believe there is a general right for any citizen to record a public meeting. However, it is obvious unless certain restrictions are set forth there could be considerable confusion.

Consequently, relative to your second question we find under the provision that the public body establish standards for the recording, we feel the municipality would not be required to allow individual citizens to record the proceedings where the municipality provides duplication of the tapes it makes since it would be a reasonable standard to insure proper decorum.

This conclusion would be applicable to your third question as to whether the statute requires any and all persons present at a public meeting be allowed and accommodated to video and tape such public meeting. We have found there is a general right for a citizen to record public meetings but this is not unrestricted. The public body is to establish standards so this can be accomplished in an orderly fashion. It would follow that under most circumstances it is not likely that it would be feasible that any and all persons present be allowed to record the meeting under any conditions they may desire.

We cannot answer your last question as to what constitutes a reasonable standard for insuring decorum at public meetings within the meaning of R.S. 42:8 for that will depend upon the facts and circumstances of each situation. The physical surroundings, the audience attendance, and number of demands made by the citizens to record are some of the matters that would have to be considered.

We hope this sufficiently answers your questions.

Sincerely yours,

Attorney General_

And here’s Louisiana Revised Statute 42:23A:

All of the proceedings in a public meeting may be video or tape recorded, filmed, or broadcast live. However, any nonelected board or commission that has the authority to levy a tax shall video or audio record, film, or broadcast live all proceedings in a public meeting.

According to the Lafayette Civil Service Board's rules, there is no prohibition listed against the public recording its meetings. So again, we ask: What does the Lafayette Fire and Police Civil Service Board have to hide?

And for those curious as to what Landor was hoping to address before the board, here's a copy of the full statement he attempted to read during Wednesday's meeting: