Sanctions sought in Bibb County open records case

An Arizona man has filed a complaint with the state Attorney General’s Office against Bibb County leaders for allegedly delaying and thwarting an open records request.

Mike Palmer contends he waited 67 days for a response that should have taken three business days and did not receive all he requested, according to his complaint.

Palmer requested criminal and civil action be taken against Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert, Sheriff David Davis, County Attorney Judd Drake and others.

The complaint alleges county leaders “knowingly and willfully” failed to provide timely access to public records for Palmer and frustrated his access to the records.

The county has denied deliberately holding up the process and attributed the delay to an internal miscommunication regarding who should respond to Palmer’s request.

On April 11, Palmer began inquiring about the arrest of Larry Craft, a traveling street preacher who was hauled away from Central City Park along with his son during the Cherry Blossom Festival.

Palmer, who advocates for Craft’s right to free speech, said he called the mayor’s office to ask for a copy of any permit privatizing the park during the festival.

He was referred to Cherry Blossom Festival CEO Jake Ferro, who did not return phone calls, according to Palmer’s filing.

On April 17, Palmer again requested a copy of the permit when he reached by phone Ben Hamrick, the business manager of the Macon-Bibb Parks and Recreation Department.

As Palmer struggled to get information, he learned of a phone call between a sheriff’s deputy and Hamrick on the day of Craft’s arrest.

The officer wanted to know if Craft needed a permit to preach in the park.

Palmer then followed up with a written request that also asked for copies of emails about requests for information following Craft’s arrest, a phone log of any calls made from deputies to Hamrick about Craft’s arrest and any documents defining what constituted soliciting in a public park.

Palmer waited three weeks, then sent a second written request in May, his complaint stated.

“Smelling a conspiracy to frustrate my access to the record, I enlarged my initial request to now include any emails from the Mayor’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office regarding my records request,” Palmer wrote in his Oct. 13 complaint to the attorney general.

Palmer received most of the requested documents June 27 but did not get a copy of the permit he initially sought, although the permit application was included.

Sheriff Davis said his department routinely complies with requests for information in a timely manner, but the original request did not originate in his department.

“There were so many different players in the mix, and I think there was some confusion,” Davis said.

Assistant Attorney General Kelly Campanella sent a copy of Palmer’s complaint to Macon-Bibb attorney Judd Drake on Nov. 21.

She informed Drake of Attorney General Sam Olens’ mediation program to resolve disputes but warned of possible civil and criminal prosecution.

On Monday, Drake’s office responded to the complaint and acknowledged the delayed response but denied a deliberate attempt to frustrate access to the records.

“A review of the emails reveals that there was confusion as to which persons or entities were responsible for responding to the request,” stated a letter from Reginald B. McClendon to Campanella. “The failure to timely respond was the result of miscommunication between departments. We do not believe that this oversight rises to the actionable level.”

Furthermore, the definition of soliciting in public parks and an official record of the call from a deputy to Hamrick the day of the arrest do not exist, the response stated.

The county attorney’s response is now under review, said Lauren Kane, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office. It is uncertain when a recommendation will come from attorneys working in the voluntary mediation program, she said.

Palmer, contacted by phone Tuesday, said he is not satisfied with Macon-Bibb’s response because not only does he believe a copy of the permit is available, but he was not notified within three days, as required by law, that the phone log and solicitation guidelines do not exist.

“If it was just one or two failings I’d be willing to write it off as inconsistent, but when I called (Hamrick) I was told: ‘You’re not the first person to have trouble,’ ” Palmer said.

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.