In what appeared to be a violation of the state’s Code of Ethics, a Jefferson Parish School Board member voted Wednesday night to reimburse himself for legal fees stemming from a case he brought against another board member.
Michael Delesdernier’s vote to have taxpayers pay the roughly $8,000 in legal fees he racked up as he successfully sought a restraining order against colleague Cedric Floyd came moments after the board’s attorney warned that his voting on the matter would be, at the least, a violation of the board’s policies. And even without Delesdernier’s participation in the vote, the attorney said, having the school system pay for the suit is a legally murky area.
The vote came at Delesdernier’s final meeting as a board member. He was ousted by Marion Bonura in the Nov. 4 primary.
It was also the last meeting at which the board faction backed by the parish’s business community will hold a majority on the board. Delesdernier has been a member of that faction.
The other four members of that group — Larry Dale, Sandy Denapolis-Bosarge, Mark Jacobs and Pat Torvea — also voted in favor of reimbursing Delesdernier, as did board President Mark Morgan, who was not part of the 2010 electoral wave that put those members on the board but has increasingly sided with them.
Floyd and the other two board members sympathetic to the Jefferson Federation of Teachers — Ray St. Pierre and Etta Licciardi — voted against the measure.
Six votes were required to pass the motion, meaning it could not have succeeded without Delesdernier’s support.
The teachers group promised to file a lawsuit over the expenditure, saying it is an inappropriate use of public money. That sentiment was echoed by some of the union’s members.
“My tax dollars are to support the schools, not the petty squabbles of individuals,” teacher David Prentice said.
Delesdernier sought a restraining order against Floyd over the summer after he said he was assaulted during a heated, closed-door board meeting about the conversion of Woodmere Elementary School into a charter school. A judge sided with Delesdernier in late October, ordering Floyd to stay at least 3 feet away from him.
Floyd, who plans to appeal the ruling, defended his actions, and St. Pierre said the description of events presented during a hearing before 24th Judicial District Court Judge Nancy Miller did not match what he saw.
Jacobs, who also lost his re-election bid, said paying Delesdernier’s legal fees would send a message.
“I’m a parent, and it is the responsibility of our school system to protect our school system, our staff and this board,” Jacobs said. “This wasn’t the first incident that I witnessed inappropriate behavior by a fellow board member, but I admire Mr. Delesdernier for standing up to that type of behavior and bullying.”
But Bonura said the vote was an example of the board taking money from students.
“For a board that has always said the kids are first and adults last, why are we asking for the kids’ money?” he said, adding that if the board wanted to go forward with the measure, it should pay the legal fees for both sides.
Dale then formally proposed that the school system pay Delesdernier’s legal fees. That, in itself, may have been problematic.
Opinions from the state Attorney General’s Office suggest boards may only reimburse the legal fees of their members in cases where the members are defending themselves from suits brought against them in their official capacity, board attorney Michael Fanning said. Because Delesdernier brought the suit himself, his case would not qualify.
Licciardi originally suggested the board delay a decision until the AG’s Office could weigh in on whether the board could reimburse Delesdernier. “The current board may be thrilled with all the attorneys’ fees we’ve paid in the last few years, but I’m certainly not,” she said.
She dropped her proposal when it became clear there were not enough votes to pass the measure without Delesdernier’s vote and after Fanning said board policies prohibit members from participating in votes that would benefit them personally. State ethics law also has similar prohibitions.
However, Delesdernier voted anyway. When other board members objected, Morgan said he could not prevent his vote from counting.