LIVINGSTON — A Livingston Parish Council member’s effort to publicly settle the parish’s lawsuits with its former road engineering firm died on the table Thursday night when the council chairman said the settlement issue wasn’t on the agenda.
Special legal counsel Richard Zimmerman was updating the council on the status of a pair of breach of contract lawsuits against Alvin Fairburn & Associates, with whom the parish has been in settlement negotiations since late July.
The firm and parish have suits against each other. The firm sued the parish for terminating its contract for engineering work before its scheduled end date without cause; the parish sued the engineering firm for alleged overbilling related to the parish’s 2010 road overlay program.
The two sides have been negotiating to settle the suits.
Councilwoman Joan Landry asked Zimmerman to confirm that the engineering firm’s insurance company’s offer to pay half of a proposed settlement amount, which had not been publicly disclosed, was set to expire Thursday night.
“I was told that it was good through tonight,” Zimmerman said. “They’ve extended the deadline three times now. They haven’t said whether they will extend it again.”
Landry said the settlement was being held hostage by certain council members who don’t want to settle the two contract cases without also settling a pair of defamation lawsuits the firm and former council clerk Mary Kistler filed against council members Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale Franz.
The council has sued Parish President Layton Ricks, seeking a court order to force him to pay the two council members’ legal bills. Judge Brenda Ricks, no relation, of the 21st Judicial District Court, has not yet issued a ruling in that case.
“We spent two months trying to settle and get to this point, and, yet, in the final hour, in executive session, someone says they don’t want to settle until they pay our defamation bills,” Landry said. “We are holding these suits hostage, and it’s blackmail.”
Landry made a motion to settle the two contract cases, and Councilwoman Sonya Collins seconded the motion. But Chairman Ricky Goff said the motion was out of order because the agenda item was for a resolution to increase Zimmerman’s spending cap in working on those cases.
Landry said the cases could have been settled Saturday, referring to a special council meeting that was hastily called on Friday morning before being canceled late Friday night.
Goff replied, “We could’ve settled this a whole lot of times in a whole lot of ways, but apparently, we have a whole lot of hard-headed people that don’t have the parish’s best interests at heart.”
Goff asked parish legal adviser Christopher Moody whether Landry’s motion could be considered under the agenda item regarding Zimmerman’s fees.
Moody said Goff had a right to call it out of order because it was not listed on the agenda as consideration of a settlement offer.
Landry said after the meeting that she had planned to add the settlement discussion as an addendum item, which would be advertised separately from the agenda but ahead of the state’s public notice deadline.
“But our attorney said I could do it under the item under legal bills, then I got overruled in the meeting,” Landry said. “I guess he changed his mind.”
Adding the item to the agenda during a council meeting without prior notice to the public would require unanimous consent — a vote Landry couldn’t muster with Goff opposing the discussion.
Zimmerman declined to say, when asked by Collins, whether he would advise the council to settle the two contract cases in light of the insurance company’s offer deadline. He said it was his job as an attorney to evaluate the case and give the council members all the facts so they can make a decision.
“But I don’t think I can tell you, as a council person, whether you should vote yes or no,” he said.
Councilman Jim Norred instead made a motion to increase Zimmerman’s spending cap by $35,000 for work he has performed since July and moving forward. The motion passed 6-1, with Landry voting against. Harris and Wale Franz were absent.
“Just remember, it’s on your head, Mr. Goff, if we lose half of that settlement money,” Landry said.
After the meeting, Landry said the council’s refusal to settle until Harris and Wale Franz’s legal bills are paid “is so morally and ethically wrong in so many ways and just cost the people a lot of money.”
Councilman Delos Blackwell said he hopes the public understands that the failure to reach a settlement thus far is not entirely the council’s fault and that, “we have problems on the administration side, as well as the council side.”
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter @HeidiRKinchen.