HAMMOND — Facing the threat of a lawsuit, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to waive a long-standing requirement that candidates for city office pay a $250 permit fee at the time they qualify to run for the office.
Mayor Mayson Foster said the city had received a letter from Scott Sternberg, of the law firm of Baldwin, Haspel, Burke and Mayer Inc., asking that the city not charge the fee. Foster said Sternberg was representing the Republican Party of Louisiana.
Foster said the Republican Party had been successful in having similar fees for candidates waived in Covington, Mandeville and other municipalities in Louisiana. The mayor said after the meeting that Hammond had been threatened with a lawsuit if it did not waive the election permit fee.
“The city would probably have had to spend between $30,000-$40,000 to defend the ordinance, and there was a good chance that we would have lost the lawsuit anyway, so I figured the best thing to do was agree with what the lawyers for the Republican Party were asking,” Foster said.
Candidates in the current races who paid the fee will be reimbursed, the mayor said.
The mayor explained that the ordinance requiring the $250 permit had been on the books for “many, many, many years.” He said the permit was adopted to force candidates to remove signs from the city at the conclusion of an election. Under the ordinance, candidates have 30 days to remove all signs from the city or forfeit the $250 fee. Foster said most candidates have voluntarily removed their signs in the past.
Hammond attorney Andre Coudrain said in an interview that the Republican Party objects to the candidates’ fee because it singles out only one group that places signs in the city. “The lawyers in their letter to the city implied that it was unfair to charge only political candidates for putting up signs when everyone else can put signs up without having to pay a fee. There is also the inference that a person’s right to free speech is somehow impaired if a citizen has to pay to deliver his or her message,” Coudrain said.
Foster told the council that other sections of the election ordinance will be strictly enforced. The mayor said candidates are not allowed to place signs on public rights of way, on utility poles, city signage such as stop signs or in any other public spaces. “If the signs are placed on public rights of way, we will remove them,” Foster said.
At the same meeting, the council voted unanimously to amend the budget for the current fiscal year to stop funding the position of jail supervisor. Foster said that after considerable study, it was determined the position is not needed. He said that the jail supervisor had left the position more than a month ago and it has not been filled.
With the money saved from eliminating the supervisor’s position, Foster said, new jailers will be hired as soon as possible.
Also, the council voted to move its Nov. 4 meeting to Nov. 3 so it will not conflict with election day activities. The council meets at 5:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month.