The attorney for ousted Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White said she is pursuing at least two avenues of appeal and has not ruled out filing a lawsuit to remedy what she considers a questionable termination.
After months of clashing with the local police union, White was fired Wednesday, less than two years into his tenure. White’s attorney, Jill Craft, has said White will appear before Mayor-President Kip Holden next week to argue he should be allowed to continue as police chief.
Craft said she also is preparing an appeal to the local Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board, a five-member panel that could vote to reinstate White.
But the question of whether White is legally entitled to a civil service appeal has become as divisive an issue as his abrupt dismissal.
City-parish officials maintained last week that White is considered an “unclassified employee” under the local Plan of Government.
“He serves at the pleasure of the mayor,” said Murphy J. Foster III, an attorney representing Holden in White’s termination. “The responsibility of the mayor-president is to refer first to the Plan of Government, and our position is that he is not a classified employee.”
Robert S. Lawrence, deputy state examiner of the Louisiana Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service, said the distinction between classified and unclassified is critical, as unclassified employees have no standing to appeal to the civil service board.
“The law is very clear,” Lawrence said. “Chief White is very definitely in the classified service of the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service System as the police chief of the city of Baton Rouge.”
Lawrence cited a state statute — R.S. 33:2481 — that lists police chiefs and assistant chiefs among classified positions.
“If there is a provision under the local ordinances that provides that the police chief is unclassified with respect to the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service System and his benefits that are afforded him as a classified employee, that would be an incorrect assumption inasmuch as the local ordinance, in my understanding, cannot supersede state law,” Lawrence said.
But Foster said Lawrence had “obviously” failed to read the city-parish Plan of Government.
“We’re reviewing all the circumstances,” Foster said. “But our position at this point is that he is not a classified servant.”
Parish Attorney Mary E. Roper referred questions to Foster about whether White is classified.
“That matter is being handled by the mayor’s office,” she said, “and we really were not involved so I really cannot give an opinion on that.”
Lawrence said White has a window of 15 days from his dismissal in which to appeal to the civil service board.
“After that, he has no standing,” he said.
The civil service board has 30 days to grant an appeal hearing, though Lawrence said boards have differed in their interpretations of whether the hearing must be held or merely granted within that time frame.
White would have the opportunity to call witnesses during the public hearing. Holden also would be given the opportunity to present reasons White was terminated.
“The hearing and investigation that the board will hold will allow both sides to give their side of the story in a sense, and the civil service board will determine, based upon the preponderance of evidence that is presented to them during the hearing, whether or not the appointing authority (Holden) acted in good faith for cause,” Lawrence said. “That is the test that they’re looking at.”
Bryan Taylor, chairman of the local Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board, did not return calls seeking comment last week but said in a text message he is aware of the conflicting positions on whether White is entitled to an appeal.
“If it is determined that Chief White’s appeal will be presented before the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board, then he will be afforded the same as all classified employees that have appealed before him,” Taylor said in the text message.
The civil service board is made up of five members. LSU, Southern University and the mayor-president’s office each have appointments approved by the Metro Council. The Police Department and Fire Department elect one representative each.
White appeared before the civil service board last month to answer a claim that he failed to discipline a police captain accused of committing perjury during a previous civil service board meeting. He asked for a continuance to prepare his case, but the board voted unanimously against opening an investigation, saying the complainant had chosen the wrong venue for the criminal allegations.
But the civil service board also has reversed actions take by White.
In December, board members overturned a 15-day suspension given to Sgt. Robert Schilling, who had been accused of pulling a woman out of a ditch by her hair after an altercation that led to her arrest.
White had suspended Schilling for allegedly violating two departmental policies: Command of temper and conduct unbecoming of an officer. He told the board Schilling’s conduct had been “egregious and warranted disciplinary action.”
But the board voted unanimously to vacate the officer’s suspension.
Asked how she feels about White’s chances before the civil service board, Craft said, “It’s like any civil service hearing — you don’t know until the board votes.”
If White does not get the answer he’s looking for, Craft said, he can appeal to the courts.
“For better or for worse, our court system has always been the great equalizer,” Craft said. “It’s not full of political appointees. There are folks who are elected and accountable not only to the citizenry, but also to the law.”