Baldwin County Circuit Court Judge Joe Norton has granted an emergency hearing to the city of Orange Beach tomorrow to consider whether the city must release the personnel records of former Police Chief Joe Fierro in response to a public records request.
Fierro, who resigned last year amid “philosophical and managerial” differences with Mayor Tony Kennon, is running for City Council in the municipal election Tuesday against incumbent Place 5 councilwoman Joni Blalock.
During a bizarre public hearing of the City Council’s Committee of the Whole Tuesday, the council allowed Fierro and others to speak about their concerns and campaigns, but there were specific instructions to avoid political language.
Just before he walked out of the meeting, Fierro spoke about his four years as police chief, saying he’s since “been attacked” as a political candidate.
“As far as my resignation goes, the mayor is the chief executive,” he said. “We had philosophical differences regarding the operations and management of the police department.”
Fierro said he was on leave with the FBI when he accepted the job in Orange Beach and soon after he was hired, he submitted a conceptual plan to the council and mayor to advance the police department and “we accomplished many of those things.”
“I chose to leave, I chose to resign, and I’m not at liberty to discuss additional details regarding that,” he said. But then he broached the subject himself.
“I don’t know why it’s important,” he continued. “I served with honor, I served my country, I served this city. There were no complaints then — there may have been some — but I’m not perfect. But I think most people were happy with the service offered by the PD. I’m not going to tell you every officer loved me. That’s the mantle of leadership.”
Although Kennon opened the meeting by stating it was “open discussion, but not a political forum,” he seized on Fierro’s admissions and alleged he “opened this can of worms.”
“Well tell us who did love you?” Kennon interjected. “I think that would be an easier question to ask … you brought me into it when you said we had philosophical differences. What philosophical differences? Name one … I was the boss.”
Kennon suggested Fierro had “crossed a line,” and if Fierro was going to answer questions, he “needs to answer them honestly.”
“You seem to want to say something mayor, why don’t you just say it?” Fierro challenged.
“I don’t have to,” Kennon answered.
Kennon then mentioned the city had recently received a public records request from “multiple citizens,” for Fierro’s personnel fire. Informed of the request through his attorney, Fierro allegedly objected to “anything to be released.” But Kennon said the city “had no choice” under public records laws.
City Attorney Wanda Cochran later said the documents will first be submitted to the Baldwin County Circuit Court to be reviewed by a judge to consider the merits of the request and the redaction of private information.
“Two individuals have asked for the personnel records,” she explained. “Because records may be harmful to Fierro or other nonparties, the city can be exposed to liability if they disclose the wrong information. The only course of action that would be fair would be to file an action in Circuit Court and ask the judge to review records in camera — in private — and make a decision about which records are public, and which aren’t. The judge may also decide certain things should be redacted.”
On Aug. 12, the city had filed an action (see below) against Fierro and the two people who requested the records, Tom Conerly and John Grissom. In a complaint for declaratory judgment, the city sought a ruling “on whether and to what extent it is required to release certain municipal records relating to [Fierro],” who the city notes is a candidate for public office. “Because the election is two weeks away, the city is requesting an expedited ruling from this court as the records may have bearing on the election.”
Conerly was employed as the city’s animal control officer from 2017 through 2019, the city told Lagniappe. Grissom has “never been employed by the city.”
On Aug. 18, the city filed a motion for an emergency hearing, which Norton granted. He is expected to review 228 pages submitted by the city and rule on their release Friday morning.
Fierro said he objected to the request “because you’re seeking to release information you never advised me of … information and complaints you never showed me, information and complaints you never discussed with me and I don’t think it should be released. And I think there’s an intent to release false and misleading information that will definitely influence this election.”
Fierro then exited the meeting, saying he wasn’t “here to debate” Kennon, also accusing the mayor of “violating his own terms” for the meeting.
At the conclusion of the meeting, which also featured passionate testimony from other residents, Kennon apologized for the display, but doubled down on Fierro.
“When you run for public office, your life is out there,” he said. “Mr Fierro left here as a victim, but Mr. Fierro is not a victim. Mr. Fierro did not resign because of the mayor, the mayor had absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Fierro resigning his position, period.”
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