Emails show Hattiesburg acted on guidance from state on business closure

Updated: Jun. 1, 2020 at 8:14 PM CDT
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HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - The City of Hattiesburg filed a motion Friday to dismiss a federal lawsuit filed against the city and its mayor by Hub City business owners.

Charles Bradford “Ford" Ramey and Herbert Taylor Ramey, owners of Updown Trampoline Park, filed the suit in federal court on May 22, claiming their civil rights had been violated because the business had not been allowed to reopen under COVID-19 executive orders.

But emails between Mayor Toby Barker and Gov. Tate Reeves’ office show the city was acting on guidance from the state in not allowing the business to reopen under Reeves’ executive orders, which did not allow places of indoor amusement to operate at the time.

Emails between the governor’s office and Barker obtained by a public records request show that Barker sought guidance from the Reeves’ office as to whether Updown Trampoline Park could be allowed to reopen. The governor’s office advised the mayor that the business should not be permitted to reopen.

Barker emailed Reeves’ office on May 15 asking for clarification regarding the status of Updown Trampoline Park under the order. Barker notes that the business wanted to keep entertainment portions of the business closed while opening the trampolines, attempting to classify the business as a gym rather than an entertainment venue.

A portion of an email sent by Barker to Reeves' office.
A portion of an email sent by Barker to Reeves' office.(City of Hattiesburg)

Brad White, Chief of Staff for Reeves’ office, told Barker in a reply that the email was being referred to the governor’s legal team for review.

Joseph Sclafani, an attorney from the governor’s office, responded that day, saying that Updown Trampoline Park “should not be permitted to resume operation at this time.”

An email from Reeves' office to Barker regarding Updown Trampoline Park.
An email from Reeves' office to Barker regarding Updown Trampoline Park.(City of Hattiesburg)

Barker relayed the message from the governor’s office to Ford Ramey in an email on May 18.

“Based on the governor’s attorney’s recommendation, the trampoline park will need to remain closed,” Barker said in the email. “I know this is not the news you hoped for, and I would certainly understand your concern and desire to open again soon. We want things to get back to some sort of normal for all of our businesses. We’ll try and reach out as soon as we get some guidance from the governor’s office. Feel free to stay in touch with us as well.”

A letter from City Attorney Moran M. Pope III dated May 20 notified the business that the governor’s executive order gives local law enforcement the authority to enforce the orders.

“As the owner, manager or supervisor of Updown Trampoline Park, the City expects that you will obey the Governor’s Executive Order to remain closed until such time as the Governor issues an Order that allow your business to legally reopen,” Pope said in the letter.

Barker emailed Ford Ramey on May 21, saying that he had again spoken with the governor’s office regarding indoor places of amusement.

“I reached out to the governor’s office again today, and they are saying early June for indoor places of amusement to open,” Barker said. “If I hear anything more, I will let you know.”

On May 22, Barker followed up with the governor’s office after Reeves announced that places of outdoor amusement and entertainment would be allowed to reopen on May 25.

“I’m watching Governor Reeves announce his most recent change to outdoor places of amusement and recreation,” Barker said in an email to Sclafani. “Just to be clear - this means that indoor places of amusement and recreation (such as bowling alleys, movie theaters, ax throwing venues and trampoline parks) - still need to remain closed?”

Sclafani responded to Barker’s email, saying that indoor places of amusement should remain closed and that the governor planned to address indoor places of amusement in the next order to be issued.

“You are correct,” Sclafani said in the email. “EO 1487 allows OUTDOOR places of amusement and recreation to open Monday, but INDOOR places of amusement and recreation remain closed. Depending on the COVID-19 numbers next week, we hope to be able to address indoor places of amusement and recreation in the next order that will go into effect on June 1.”

The Rameys filed their lawsuit that same day, claiming the city had issued citations for keeping the business open.

Body camera footage from the Hattiesburg Fire Department obtained through a public records request shows the fire marshal and Hattiesburg police officers attempting to get the business to comply with Reeves’ orders on May 20.

The employees are advised that they are in violation of the governor’s order and that a citation will be issued if they do not close. The employees have Brad Ramey, the father of the business owners, on the phone during the encounter talking to the officers. Brad Ramey repeatedly directs expletives at the officers and tells them to leave.

Brad Ramey tells the employees to not provide the officers with their information and tells them he will pay them $5,000 to get arrested and go to jail.

“I don’t want to arrest anyone, that’s not why I’m here,” an officer said.

In the video, officers eventually write citations and leave them at the business.

Attorney Cory Ferraez provided the following statement from Ford and Taylor Ramey regarding the video:

“Brad Ramey is our Dad. The video showed what most other small business owners are whispering under their breath and saying in silence. While our Dad regrets his language, the video is nothing more than the frustration as a father and business owner to the City and Mayor Barker’s discriminatory enforcement of the executive orders and ordinances against small businesses. Any father would fight for his children to earn a living and do so without government overreach and interference. We don’t blame the officers for doing their job. The officers have a strong relationship with our Dad and warmly received his apologies the next day. They understand the position that we are in and we feel sorry they are forced to carry out discriminatory practices against small businesses. Peaceful protest is the bedrock of our country and we look forward to taking our arguments to Court. We appreciate everyone’s continued support.”

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