Council meeting heats up over question about phone calls

Last night’s Picayune City Council meeting turned from relatively calm to tense once the council moved into the miscellaneous councilmembers business section. During that section of time, Councilman Wayne Gouguet asked City Manager Jim Luke a question regarding if phone calls were being recorded.

Gouguet said to Luke, “I’ve got a serious situation here. Jim, I’ve got to ask you a serious question. Something has been brought to my attention, and I think it ought to be talked about in open session. It’s a simple yes or no question, please be honest. Since being appointed some seven years to the position of City Manager, have you ever recorded, or attempted to record, a private conversation with a councilperson in person or over the phone without their knowledge or consent?” Luke did not respond and after long pause, Gouguet asked Luke once again without a response from Luke.

At this time, Councilman Larry Breland addressed Mayor Ed Pinero stating that he had a concern with this being discussed in open session citing certain rules related to open meetings and he felt this should be in executive session. Breland then asked Board Attorney Nathan Farmer for an opinion.

Farmer said the determination of whether an item goes into executive session or not, that responsibility resides with the council. Farmer also stated there was no executive item on the agenda for today, so the council cannot go into an executive session. He also stated that the council was conducting its second meeting of the month and could not amend the agenda (to add an executive session), unlike a first meeting of the month, where that action is allowable. Farmer said that in the past, the miscellaneous councilmembers business section (discussion) was used for the councilmembers to go back and ask questions.

Breland asked Farmer if the question asked by Gouguet was a violation of what should and should not be asked in open session and Farmer said he would have to look at the law (while at the meeting) and try to get an answer.

Gouguet then stated, “I would think as a councilman, I should have a right to know if I’m being recorded or not without my knowledge. I think anyone in this room would like to have that knowledge (being recorded or not). It ought to be a yes or no. I know I’ve never done that. In thirty years of working at Stennis, I never recorded anyone.”

Councilmembers Tammy Valente and Larry Breland having a heated exchange

After a heated exchange between Breland and Councilwoman Tammy Valente on whether the question should have been asked of Luke, Valente took exception to a comment made by Breland. Breland said that he felt that “putting someone on the spot was totally unfair”.

Valente fired back stating, "I've been called out during open sessions as being racist and a lot of other things, and do not see this any different".

Breland replied that he stands behind everything he has stated (to Valente in past open sessions) and that he had “facts and proof” to support what he had said..

Mayor Ed Pinero then addressed Gouguet.

“Wayne, I don’t have an issue with you raising the question. But the council wasn’t aware, except for maybe two members, but nobody else was. I think we should have been told.” Pinero also said “I’ve never recorded anybody and don’t have a reason to.”

Councilman Wayne Gouguet (left) asks City Manager Jim Luke (center) about phone calls as Mayor Ed Pinero looks on.

Mayor Pinero added that he was concerned that the council keeps having issues that appear to be divisive and this keeps the council from moving forward and working together in a productive manner.

Gouguet responded to Pinero, “Last Friday, we got hard evidence that Jim made a phone call to Tammy with the intention of taping her. That is the trust that I have when I do call Jim and talk to him about personnel issues, to talk to him about critical, sensitive issues going on in the city. That (trust) is just blown out the door if I find out that he’s going to tape a councilmember. It’s just unheard of. How can we have a conversation when we have hard evidence now? It’s not an allegation. I feel violated."

Gouguet added, “How do I know that my conversations for the past seven years haven’t been recorded and played back to someone?”

After more lengthy discussion between the council members and attorney Farmer, he told the council they would have to setup a special called meeting to take up the matter. In that meeting, Farmer said the council could go into executive session.

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