The debate about whether Lafayette’s next police chief must have a bachelor’s degree seems far from over, despite the Fire and Police Civil Service Board’s decision earlier this month to not relax a requirement that Mayor-President Joel Robideaux and others say makes it difficult to attract a diverse pool of candidates.
Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux launched a multi-front assault on the board’s action at Tuesday’s City-Parish Council meeting, calling into question whether two board members can legally serve, pointing out that state civil service officials recommended relaxing the degree requirement and arguing that keeping the degree requirement in place could invite a federal discrimination complaint for effectively blocking minority candidates.
“This is by no means a threat,” Boudreaux said. “I will file that complaint.”
Robideaux, who took office in January, had pushed to allow chief applicants to have law enforcement experience plus a mix of college credit or a two-year degree in lieu of a bachelor’s degree.
The request, had it been approved, would have allowed the man Robideaux appointed as interim chief, Reginald Thomas, to qualify to serve as the permanent chief.
Thomas, who is interested in the job, does not have a four-year college degree.
However, he does have an associate degree in criminal justice and 25 years of experience at the department, serving for 10 of those years as a supervisor.
The board took no formal action on the mayor’s request and instead voted 4-1 to propose a tweaked version of the current qualifications, keeping the bachelor’s degree requirement in place.
Robideaux has the authority to appoint the chief, but the chief must meet the qualifications set by the board.
The board is expected to vote on the proposal next month, but Boudreaux has been actively working in recent weeks to steer the discussion back to alternative requirements.
“It is inevitable that Lafayette gets it right,” he said.
Robideaux had proposed three new tiers of chief qualifications: allowing applicants to have a bachelor’s degree plus 15 years of law enforcement experience; an associate degree or 69 hours of college coursework plus 20 years’ experience; or a high school diploma with some college coursework and 25 years of experience.
The Police Association of Lafayette, an officer group, supported the first two tiers but took no stance on the third tier.
Council members learned Tuesday that the Office of State Examiner, which advises and works with local civil service boards on job classifications and testing, had also recommended relaxing the bachelor’s degree requirement, allowing applicants to have a two-year degree or a high school diploma if the lack of a four-year degree was offset with greater experience.
“Much can be said of academia, but academia is not everything,” said State Examiner Robert Lawrence.
He said most cities allow for considering greater experience in lieu of a four-year degree for police chief candidates.
Lawrence also said the local civil service board was required to discuss and make an up-and-down vote on Robideaux’s recommendation and the Office of State Examiner’s recommendation. The local board did neither.
Further complicating the issue is the possibility that two members of the five-member civil service board might not be legally allowed to serve because they are employed by a state university, based on state law and state attorney general opinions cited by Boudreaux.
Board member Craig Forsyth is a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and board member Ralph Peters, who once served in the Lafayette Police Department, is a professor at Northwestern State University.
City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott said a cursory reading of the law and opinions cited by Boudreaux appears to support Boudreaux’s interpretation that Peters and Forsyth should not have been appointed, but he would need to do further legal research.
Lawrence, too, said it seems Boudreaux’s complaint is valid, telling council members the Office of State Examiner might advise Peters and Forsyth that they should resign.
But Lawrence also said forcing their resignation would be difficult because the law offers substantial protections for civil service board members once they are seated to prevent political interference in civil service decisions.
“Once they are appointed, it is very difficult to remove them,” he said.
There was no clear path forward laid out in Tuesday’s meeting, but Boudreaux did request formal letters be sent to Forsyth and Peters advising them of their questionable status as board members.