Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks must pay the legal bills of two Parish Council members sued personally for allegedly defamatory comments they made about his former employer and his current executive assistant, a state court judge ruled Thursday.
Judge Brenda Ricks, no relation, of the 21st Judicial District Court, said the parish president has a duty under the parish’s Home Rule Charter to follow resolutions the Parish Council passes and cannot selectively enforce or ignore them.
Layton Ricks said Thursday he will appeal the ruling.
Alvin Fairburn & Associates, where Layton Ricks worked before taking office in 2012, and former council clerk Mary Kistler, who now works for the parish president, sued council members Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale Franz in 2013 for comments they made for a WBRZ-TV report. The report claimed Kistler had changed the wording of a resolution to allow the firm to bill for work the council had not authorized.
Fairburn and Kistler seek damages from Harris and Wale Franz personally, not from the parish. But the Parish Council twice resolved to pay the two council members’ legal bills, saying they were acting as public officials when they gave the interviews.
Layton Ricks repeatedly has refused to pay those bills, citing an Oct. 7, 2013, state attorney general’s opinion that suggested withholding payment until a judge ruled that Harris and Wale Franz were acting in their official capacity as council members.
Council Chairman Ricky Goff said Thursday it was a “sad day” for Livingston Parish government “that we had to go to this extreme to get this ruling.”
“But it is an extremely important day, no matter who the council is in the future, no matter who the parish president is in the future,” Goff said. “Hopefully, this will stop some of the controversy going back and forth.”
Goff said he hoped Layton Ricks would not appeal the decision because it could pave the way for the parish to settle another pair of lawsuits between the parish and Fairburn, stemming from a dispute over the firm’s contract and billing for road engineering work.
The parish president said Thursday that the council has the ability to settle the two Fairburn lawsuits, separate from the defamation cases and the council members’ legal bills. But Goff said those issues are too interrelated to separate.
“These two cases are part of a total settlement that the council has already come to a conclusion that, I think, would pass unanimously,” Goff said. “But we couldn’t get it passed because the parish president wouldn’t sign those checks” for the two council members’ legal bills.
In seeking the court order compelling payment, council attorney Harold Adkins had argued that the parish president “has absolutely no discretion whether or not he wishes to carry out” the council’s resolutions ordering him to pay the bills.
Goff testified at a hearing earlier this month that it is the council’s responsibility to determine what expenses are properly borne by the taxpayer.
Layton Ricks’ attorney, Brian Abels, argued in response that the parish had no contract with Harris’ and Wale Franz’s attorney, the council had not appropriated the funds by ordinance, and Fairburn and Kistler had expressly said they were not seeking money from the parish.
Abels said those facts distinguished the case from a 2011 dispute between Fairburn and former Parish President Mike Grimmer, who had refused to pay the firm for an earlier invoice. In that case, Judge Zoey Waguespack ruled Grimmer was bound by the Parish Council’s resolution to pay the firm. Grimmer had appealed the ruling, but before the state 1st Circuit could hear the case, Layton Ricks defeated Grimmer in the 2011 elections and paid Fairburn immediately upon taking office.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter @HeidiRKinchen.