Gretna, lawyer: No swift  end to expensive dispute

“They’re charging me with crimes that don’t exist … They’re making stuff up.  It’s never-ending.” Mark Morice,  Gretna lawyer

After two years and nearly $100,000 in expenses, there are two things clear about the dispute between the city of Gretna and local lawyer Mark Morice: It stopped being about a fence a long time ago, and neither side knows when its going to end.

The protracted battle between Morice and Gretna may have begun as a simple disagreement over the height of Morice’s fence, but it’s now morphed into a battle over the rights of property owners and the extent of governmental power. Morice and Gretna politicians have completely different views of the situation, and neither side sees any fault in the actions they’ve taken.

“My wife and I are unified in that we just want to be left alone,” Morice said recently, claiming he’s been the victim of sustained harassment by the city.

“I think Mr. Morice has to quit suing us,” said Councilman Vincent Cox III, who added that Morice doesn’t really want things to end.

Gretna officials have been wrangling with Morice since 2010 after his homeowner’s association claimed his new fence was too tall, and city officials agreed. The dispute eventually wound up in 24th Judicial District Court, where a judge said the city’s fencing ordinances were ambiguous and sided with Morice. However, by that point Gretna officials had already removed the fence.

Since then, Morice and Gretna have been embroiled in multiple lawsuits involving the fence, public records requests, plumbing violations and Morice’s construction of a massive “Christmas ornament” that looked exactly like a makeshift fence constructed of black tarp. In total, there have been about a dozen court cases involving the city and Morice, including a federal civil rights lawsuit. Morice has won some, but the city has won more.

The city has spent at least $96,000 handling those cases and responding to Morice’s public records requests, according to figures provided by City Attorney Mark Morgan. Morgan wrote that Morice is harassing the city to improve the profile of his law practice.

“It is the city’s position, as evidenced by the six law suits and 51 public record requests on 31 separate occasions filed by Mr. Morice, that he is engaged in barratry, the intentional misuse of his status as an attorney to burden the City with excessive litigation costs over claims with questionable merit.” Morgan wrote in a statement. Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris declined to comment on the issue because of pending litigation.

But Morice claims that Morgan is the real problem. At several City Council meetings, which Morice often attends with a camera crew, he’s accused Morgan of giving Gretna officials terrible legal advice. Morice says that Morgan has threatened him and used his position to harass him, while at the same time profiting from the continuing litigation.

Morice notes that he has repeatedly asked city officials to meet with him informally to discuss the fence issue, and they’ve repeatedly declined. He acknowledges settlement offers, but said he can’t discuss the details because of court rulings.

“I can say that they did not in good faith have any discussions with me,” said Morice, who compared the offers to being given $1,000 for a wrecked Maserati. “It costs a lot of money to fight the government.”

Gretna resident Laurie Ledet told the council recently that it’s ridiculous how much money has been spent going after Morice, particularly since she believes the city was wrong to remove the fence. She questioned the entire exercise.

“That’s not your money, that’s the taxpayers’ money,” Ledet said. “Please end this now.”

But Cox said that at this point, the city has follow through to protect its right to enact and enforce laws. Cox believes that Morice wants to be above the law, and if they city allows that to happen, it could have larger consequences.

“Every time we try to do something that’s normal procedure, he sues us,” Cox said. “He’s made this issue way bigger than it is … He’s made this battle out of it.”

Morice clearly does see the issue a battle, but one where he’s the hero and city officials are the villain. He said the city cannot use its power and laws to restrict residents’ inalienable rights, and they can’t target individual residents for attacks.

“They’re charging me with crimes that don’t exist … They’re making stuff up,” Morice said. “It’s never-ending, and it’s not going to end until there is a settlement.”