There are three candidates in the running to be the next East Baton Rouge Parish attorney, and they’ve positioned themselves as the following: the one with the experience, the one who’s a proven administrator and the one who is a blank slate.
The three finalists to be the city-parish’s top legal adviser are interim Parish Attorney Lea Anne Batson, Clerk of Court and City Court Judicial Administrator Lon Norris, and Michael Adams, the co-owner of an insurance liquidation firm with experience working in state and city governments.
The three interviewed Wednesday before a search committee of industry professionals and council members. A fourth finalist, Joell Keller, withdrew ahead of the interviews. All three were recommended to the Metro Council, but the committee did not rank their preferences. The interviews will be available on video for council members to make their decision.
Batson has 27 years of experience working for the city-parish and has taken over as leader of the office since former Parish Attorney Mary Roper was fired by the Metro Council last year. Batson is generally well liked by Metro Council members, who acknowledge she has institutional knowledge of the office. But she faces two primary obstacles: distancing herself from problems associated with Roper’s administration and the fact that she is classified as a part-time employee who can be paid for only 29 hours a week because she is one of the city-parish’s many retired administrators still on the books.
Part-time employees and staff with private practices have been an issue with some council members for years. Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe has previously accused many attorneys in the office of spending too little time dedicated to their primary job in the Parish Attorney’s Office because they are permitted to divide their attention to side jobs. It was among one of the many complaints lodged against Roper.
Batson said she regularly puts in a 35- to 45-hour work week and does not have a private practice. She said she’s implemented time sheets, making sure her staff members are accountable for their hours and are working at least 80 hours per pay period, as required.
But she said she disagrees with imposing a policy that would disallow her staff from having a private practice to supplement their income.
“We don’t pay as much as the district attorney or the Attorney General’s Office,” Batson said. “It would be a mistake to prohibit outside practices; we’d be reducing our talent pool enormously.”
But Norris, who has 30 years’ experience in city-parish government and oversees a budget of almost $10 million and 154 employees, said he would implement a rule to make staff full time and prohibit private practices. However, he said the policy would be implemented over the course of two years to allow staff time to adjust.
“We’ve got to dedicate our time and efforts to the parish business as opposed to private practices,” Norris said. “If you serve two masters, then one is likely to be neglected.”
Last year, an Advocate review of private practice case loads for assistant parish attorneys found that several full-time staff members had bustling private practices that frequently required the attorneys to be in court during business hours. Over the course of about 14 months, Assistant Parish Attorney Tedrick Knightshead made at least 144 appearances on behalf of his private clients in the 19th Judicial District Courthouse during business hours, representing 99 different clients on behalf of his private criminal defense practice. At least 34 of those cases pitted him against the Baton Rouge Police Department, an agency represented by the Parish Attorney’s Office. Knightshead said he still worked full-time hours; however, he was able to maintain both jobs because he frequently did his duties outside of a regular 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday.
Adams is the only candidate who is coming from outside city-parish government, which he said is an advantage. He said can give the department, which was the target of negative publicity during Roper’s rocky exodus, a fresh face and perspective.
While the two other candidates had clear visions of policy and structural changes, Adams said he is a “blank slate” who will assess the situation before committing to any structural changes.
“From day one, there needs to be an analysis from the top down,” he said.
He said he would still take clients in his private practice, DeCuir, Clark and Adams LLP, noting that the parish attorney position would be a pay cut for him. The firm represents small businesses, federal agencies, state government, Fortune 500 companies, insurance companies and nonprofits. DeCuir also has worked for the state Department of Insurance and the Louisiana Department of Justice.
The Metro Council is expected to receive a report from the committee on Wednesday. Loupe said it’s possible the council could vote to appoint a parish attorney at the meeting.