LAFAYETTE — Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, Lafayette Parish School Board member Mark Cockerham resigned Tuesday from his seat representing District 7 — a district he no longer lives in.
Assistant District Attorney Jay Prather informed Cockerham in a letter Monday that he needed to vacate his seat since he now resides in District 9. If not, the letter stated, the DA’s Office would file suit against him.
Prather released a copy of the letter to The Advocate early Tuesday. Shortly afterward, Cockerham’s attorney, Gary McGoffin, released a copy of his client’s resignation notice.
Cockerham is running for the District 7 seat in the Nov. 4 election, but that doesn’t pose a problem because redistricting that takes effect in January puts him in that district.
Cockerham stated in his resignation notice that he unintentionally vacated the seat when he moved to his new address, which is in District 9 based on current district maps.
“It is with great regret that I must announce that I will not be able to complete these last few months of my eighth year of service to District 7 despite every intention to do so,” Cockerham wrote.
Prather’s letter to Cockerham advised him to publicly acknowledge that he vacated the seat or the DA’s Office would file a lawsuit declaring that the seat was vacated effective on Aug. 20 — the date that Cockerham filed his candidacy for the upcoming board elections with his new address.
Cockerham explained in his resignation announcement that he moved in with his sister, whom he believed lived in District 7, to save money as he explored new career options.
Cockerham has said he consulted district maps before making his move, and unknowingly used the redistricting maps that were not yet in effect.
“I say this is unfortunate because it was my intention to complete my term in District 7 and it was my sincere belief that I was qualified to do so,” Cockerham stated.
He said he believed he was qualified to continue serving based on his consultations with school system staff, the registrar of voters and a former board colleague and friend, Mike Hefner.
“In none of my conversations with them about residency was the fact of the reapportioned districts mentioned nor was I cautioned about this unique circumstance. However, ultimately, that responsibility is mine and I accept it,” Cockerham said
Hefner has said Cockerham never asked him about the impact of a moving decision, but did request a copy of a map for his district.
Based on state law and the maps still in effect, Cockerham’s move placed him outside of District 7 and the vacancy of his seat occurred on Aug. 20 —when he filed for candidacy in the upcoming election, Prather wrote.
Former Lafayette Parish School System administrator Nancy Cech filed suit against Cockerham last month challenging whether he could legally continue serving in his current board seat. Cockerham’s challenger in the upcoming Nov. 4 board election, Dawn Morris, joined the lawsuit about a week later.
A hearing on the lawsuit was scheduled for Oct. 20. Meanwhile, Cech and Morris also filed a complaint with District Attorney Mike Harson, which led to Prather’s opinion letter on the issue to Cockerham.
In his resignation announcement, Cockerham accused Morris, who is an attorney, of filing the lawsuit to create a “political advantage” in the upcoming election. He also alleges that Morris had Cech file the lawsuit on her behalf. Cech initially filed the suit on her own without legal representation. Once Morris joined the lawsuit, attorney Bill Goode represented the two women in the case.
“You may have heard that my opponent filed a lawsuit to disqualify me as a candidate or to prevent me from completing these last three months of my term,” Cockerham wrote. “She did so without identifying herself by acting through another even though she is a practicing attorney. Only after service of a deposition subpoena did she reveal herself by name as a party to that action.”
Morris denied Cockerham’s allegations. The law is clear that “when an elected official moves out of the district that elected him, he vacates the seat,” Morris said. She said the lawsuit has no bearing on Cockerham’s qualifications for the Nov. 4 election.
“That has nothing to do with the upcoming election or his qualifications so I’m unsure what political advantage Mr. Cockerham or Mr. McGoffin believe that has given me as a challenger,” she said.
Cockerham’s resignation leaves the board with a vacancy as members face decisions on charges against Superintendent Pat Cooper during an Oct. 14 hearing. Cooper could face disciplinary action, including termination.
Cockerham is in a minority of three board members, including Kermit Bouillion and Shelton Cobb, who have supported Cooper and voted against accepting charges against Cooper last month.
Cooper filed a lawsuit Monday in district court seeking to stall the hearing until a judgment on his claims that three board members — Mark Babineaux, Tehmi Chassion and board President Hunter Beasley — should be barred from voting in the hearing due to their alleged bias against him.
Beasley said he doesn’t think the board will meet to discuss Cockerham’s vacant seat prior to the Oct. 14 hearing. He said the board likely will take up the issue at its regularly scheduled board meeting on Oct. 15.
Beasley said the board in the past has taken recommendations on a temporary appointment from the outgoing board member and also reached out to qualified residents of the impacted district to identify potential replacements.
Vacancies aren’t unusual during a term and have occurred in the past seven years on the School Board due to a member’s death, a move out of district or the state or election to another office.
Cockerham was appointed to the School Board in 2007, following the death of longtime board member David Thibodaux. Cockerham’s appointment came at the recommendation of Thibodaux’s wife. Cockerham later won the seat unopposed in a special election.
“We’ve had several instances where we’ve had to fill vacancies,” said Hefner, the former Lafayette Parish School Board member.
He said he went on the board in 1986 to complete the remaining year in the term of his father-in-law, who had fallen ill and was unable to serve. Hefner later ran for the seat and won in 1990, serving as a board member until 2010.
During his tenure on the board, Hefner recalled only one instance in which the board could not agree on a replacement for a vacant seat and the governor appointed someone.
In that case, Ruth Hennessey moved out of state in 1995 and asked the board to confirm the appointment of her son, Jeff, to fill her seat. The board deadlocked on a decision between Hennessey’s son and Denise Skinner. Then-Gov. Edwin Edwards stepped in and appointed Skinner until a special election could be held in spring 1996.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.