In an about-face from two months ago, Livingston Parish officials agreed to settle their legal disputes with engineering firm Alvin Fairburn & Associates without any money changing hands.
Under the deal approved Thursday, the parish and Fairburn agreed to dismiss a pair of lawsuits against each other stemming from a terminated road engineering contract, as well as a defamation lawsuit the firm filed against two Parish Council members, former Council Chairman Ricky Goff said Friday.
Fairburn also agreed to drop its $5 million claim in federal court for unpaid debris removal monitoring work after Hurricane Gustav, Goff said. But that claim, and the parish’s response, will be dismissed without prejudice — meaning either side could raise those issues again in court.
Each side will be responsible for its own legal fees — a total of about $300,000 on the parish’s side.
Parish President Layton Ricks also will pay the legal fees of council members Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale Franz in defending the defamation lawsuit Fairburn filed against them personally, Councilwoman Sonya Collins confirmed Friday. Ricks will not pay the pair’s legal fees in defending a related defamation case filed by former council clerk Mary Kistler, whose lawsuit was not part of the settlement, Collins said.
As long as the Kistler lawsuit remains active, the Parish Council’s lawsuit against Ricks for a writ of mandamus — a court order compelling a public official to act — will move forward. In that case, the council argued that Ricks cannot refuse to obey a council resolution to pay all of Harris’s and Franz’s legal bills. A 21st Judicial District judge, Brenda Ricks, no relation to the parish president, has ordered Layton Ricks to pay the bills but he has appealed that ruling.
Goff, who voted against the settlement deal Thursday night, said he is glad for the parish that the lawsuits are being dropped, but he disagreed with the way the council majority handled the settlement.
Goff had pushed for a similar deal in November that he said would have included a $100,000 payment to the parish. The council voted 6-3 against that deal Nov. 24.
The vote Thursday was 5-2 in favor of settlement, with Harris and Franz abstaining.
“Why the council could not bring themselves to settle for the same arrangement, but getting paid, I don’t know,” Goff said Friday. “Now they want to step up and be the saviors but for zero dollars.”
Goff said the council’s reversal cost the parish $120,000 — that is, $100,000 in settlement payment and about $20,000 in legal fees during the past two months.
But current Council Chairman Chance Parent said Friday that Fairburn already had pulled the $100,000 offer off the table before the council voted in November. “The deal was already off the table because Mr. Goff kept trying to counter-offer,” Parent said.
Parent said the counter-offers, which he contends the council as a whole was not informed of, caused negotiations to fall apart and that the November push for settlement was a last-ditch effort on Goff’s part to revive the deal.
Goff said, “That is absolutely a false statement.” Goff said he never negotiated with Fairburn or the firm’s attorney without the knowledge and consent of his colleagues.
Goff said it wasn’t the dollar amount that hampered negotiations, but the need to get Harris and Franz on board because the council majority would not settle without them being comfortable with the deal.
A Nov. 21 email between Fairburn’s attorney and the parish legal adviser reveals how shaky negotiations had become by that point. In the email, Fairburn attorney Brad Rhorer said he would take whatever offer the council approved back to his client to see if the firm was still on board, but “I will not make another call to my clients or to the insurers to confirm anything before the council gets its act together and votes.”
Goff also disagreed with keeping the settlement terms under wraps Thursday night. He had pushed for the council’s special attorney, Richard Zimmerman, to outline the terms publicly before the council voted. But Collins called the matter to a vote before Zimmerman could do so.
Collins said Friday that the attorney had advised them to make a motion to settle without publicly stating the terms, until the agreement could be put in writing. “I wasn’t trying to hide anything from the public,” Collins said. “I was following the advice of my attorney.”
Collins said she would have liked to settle the matter much sooner, noting that she had voted for the settlement back in November. “I wanted the $100,000,” she said.
Layton Ricks said he was happy to see the parish reach an agreement that would save the parish another $250,000 to $500,000 in legal fees.
“This is a good day for Livingston Parish as a whole,” Ricks said Thursday night.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen. Contact her by phone at (225) 336-6981.