LIVINGSTON — The question of which branch of parish government has the power to decide whether an expense is a proper use of public funds was the focus of a hearing Wednesday in a lawsuit between the Livingston Parish Council and Parish President Layton Ricks.
The council is seeking a court order requiring Ricks to pay the legal bills of two council members sued personally for allegedly defamatory comments they made to a reporter about Ricks’ former employer, Alvin Fairburn & Associates, and his current executive assistant, Mary Kistler.
Judge Brenda Ricks, no relation, of the 21st Judicial District Court, heard arguments and testimony in the case Wednesday but deferred ruling for two weeks until both sides submit written arguments on the powers of the council versus the duties of the parish president.
On the witness stand, Council Chairman Ricky Goff said it is the council’s responsibility to determine what expenses are properly borne by the taxpayer and the council’s resolutions ordering payment of Marshall Harris’ and Cindy Wale’s legal bills should be binding on the parish president.
“If a council resolution was not binding, then every action we took would have to be done by ordinance, and everything would grind to a halt,” Goff said.
Ricks’ attorney, Brian Abels, pressed Goff on whether that meant the parish president would be obligated to carry out the wishes of the council, no matter how absurd, if the council passed a resolution.
The parish does not have a contract with Harris’ and Wale’s attorney, there is no ordinance specifically dedicating the funds, and the Fairburn firm and Kistler have expressly said they are not seeking money from the parish, Abels pointed out.
Abels said Layton Ricks, who did not testify Wednesday, has never said he would not pay the legal bills. Ricks has said only that he wanted to wait until a court finds that Harris and Wale were acting as public officials at the time before making payment.
A state attorney general’s opinion issued Oct. 7, 2013, suggested withholding payment until such a judgment is rendered. Otherwise, if the council members were found personally liable, the parish would have to recoup all the money it spent defending them in the lawsuits.
Goff testified Wednesday that, while he respects Ricks’ desire to withhold payment, the council is the branch with the authority to make that decision.
“I’d be the first one to make the motion” to recoup the funds if Harris and Wale were found personally liable, Goff testified.
Goff said the issue is bigger than just these particular bills.
“There are multiple resolutions passed by the council that the parish president hasn’t done,” Goff testified.
Goff said if the parish president can ignore the expressed wishes of the council, “in my personal opinion, this would be a dictatorship, and I do not want to be a part of a government that one person has that much power.”
Abels said after the hearing that the parish’s Home Rule Charter details the procedure for properly spending parish funds.
“It’s our position that until those things are done, it’s not a proper expenditure, and it’s the parish president, as the executive branch, who is charged with signing contracts and making disbursements,” Abels said.
The Fairburn firm and Kistler sued Harris and Wale in March 2013, alleging the pair defamed them in a WBRZ-TV report that aired that month. The report claimed Kistler, the former council clerk, had changed the wording of a resolution to allow the firm to bill for road engineering work the council had not authorized.
The two defamation lawsuits have been consolidated and assigned to Division A, the seat Judge Wayne Ray Chutz is vacating to join the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter @HeidiRKinchen.