Erring on the side of caution is still erring

The Union Parish Police Jury fired Public Works Director Tommy Durrett a little more than two weeks ago without stating, publicly, why they took this action. At the time, we at The Gazette assumed whatever prompted the action would be made public shortly thereafter.
That didn’t happen and this week we learned that the Jury has filed a complaint against Durrett with the State Board of Ethics, which is responsible for enforcing the state’s ethics code. The Ethics Board receives thousands of complaints every year that range in merit from very serious crimes to nothing sandwiches inspired by petty local politics.
We know the complaint was filed, not because the jury made the fact public, but because so many people are talking about it. “Talking” is probably too kind a term; “gossiping” is a more accurate description. Therein lies our own complaint: Why is it that the Jury and a handful of people they’ve told are the only ones who know, for certain, why the parish public works director was fired? Why do people in Baton Rouge know more about what’s happening in Union Parish than the people who live here?
Public officials are strictly limited in what they can say about an employee who has been terminated, so the lack of public comment regarding Durrett’s termination is understandable. However, Louisiana law states that the contents of termination letters are public information. The Gazette made sure the Jury knew that if such a letter was provided to Durrett we would publish its contents. Instead, the jury made a conscious decision to not provide a termination letter and to withhold their justification for the firing from the public.
To be clear, the Jury was within its rights to keep their reasons to themselves, but in so doing also bears some responsibility for the unfair characterizations of both the Jury and Durrett that have appeared on social media.
Then, there’s this ethics complaint.
Allegations contained in ethics complaints are privileged information, meaning members of the UPPJ are prohibited from publicly discussing the facts that inspired the complaint until the Ethics Board completes its investigation. Now that the complaint has been submitted, it appears possible that the speculation and personal bias that have marked the debate over Durrett’s firing will continue, perhaps for months, without the benefit of information critical to an informed debate.
The Gazette believes the jury made a bad call when they decided to file the complaint prior to notifying the public of their intent to do so. There was a window of opportunity between when the jury came to know whatever it is that inspired the complaint and their decision to submit it to the Ethics Board when they could have informed the public of what they had discovered, or at minimum, that they had discovered something of concern and were referring it to the state for review.
In all fairness, the jury erred on the side of caution. They were advised by their attorney to be very careful about what they say regarding Durrett due to of the potential for legal action down the road. It is also fair to say that if the jurors were unsure of what information they could or could not release regarding Durrett, then remaining silent may have felt like their only option.
Here’s our suggestion: Get sure. This jury is intelligent enough that they can balance prudence and the public’s right to know. First, however, they have to hold the public’s right to know in high enough regard that, when appropriate, it trumps lesser considerations, such as how much of a headache public disclosure may cause the jurors, themselves.
Second, they need to recognize that they play a role in how the discourse in the parish unfolds when crisis or controversy occurs. If they choose to keep information from the people, even when they have legal right to do so, they are playing with disinformation fire.
Our new jury is just a couple months old, and they have a long road ahead of them that will be filled with opportunities to improve the quality of life for the people of Union Parish. We believe the Jury’s success is directly proportional to the faith they inspire in those people. We also believe that withholding information will inspire no one.

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Thomas FieldsThomas “Tuffy” Fields is an author and regular contributor to The Gazette. He can …

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