The St. Tammany Parish Council and District Attorney Warren Montgomery are still wrangling over who will control the parish’s legal representation.
The council had planned to create a new position for a council attorney who would be chosen by the council and serve at its pleasure. The measure was up for introduction last week and would have been voted on in March.
But Montgomery sent a letter to the council opposing the ordinance. He said it would be contrary to state law and a provision in St. Tammany’s home rule charter that says the district attorney is to serve as legal adviser to the council and parish president.
Council Chairman Marty Dean responded, also by letter, that he would recommend removing the item from the agenda “in order that further discussions can take place.”
Montgomery confirmed that he is in discussions with the council and hopes to “resolve this amicably.”
The district attorney first clashed with the Parish Council on the issue last spring when he objected to amending the home rule charter to give the council control of its legal affairs. While he agreed with giving the parish president that authority, he argued that a 14-member council is too unwieldy to provide the same degree of oversight of its legal team.
The disagreement came to a head in the fall, when the council put the question on the November ballot despite Montgomery’s protests. Voters soundly rejected the charter change.
Since then, Montgomery has made public comments hinting that he plans to flex the office’s muscles when it comes to the parish’s legal affairs. All of the lawyers who now represent the parish are employees of the District Attorney’s Office.
While the district attorney and council try to hash out their differences privately, members of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany turned out for last week’s council meeting ready to debate the matter. Several demurred when they learned that the issue was being removed from the agenda.
But Paula Borne told the council that she viewed the proposed ordinance as a “slap in the face” to voters who already had made clear they want the district attorney to provide the parish’s legal representation. She called the ordinance “a clear violation of the home rule charter.”
Councilman Steve Stefancik said Borne needed to stay on the subject, namely the removal of the item from the agenda.
But the CCST members weren’t through with the home rule charter. When the council voted to ratify the only charter amendment passed by voters, CCST member Kort Hutchison asked whether the measure would limit public debate at council meetings.
The amendment requires the council to adopt by ordinance a procedure for allowing any interested person “to be heard at council meetings on any matter relating to parish government and on the meeting agenda.”
Hutchison wanted to know how the council interpreted the word “and.” Could a discussion topic be either government-related or on the agenda, or must it be both?
Stefancik, who served on the charter review panel that proposed the amendment, said that discussion items must meet both criteria.
When Hutchison declared himself dissatisfied with that response, Stefancik said the public can ask council members to put any issue on the agenda, and Councilwoman Michele Blanchard said that anyone can speak to the council’s Agenda Review Committee without restriction.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.