Four years ago, the race for Pearl River mayor was embroiled in a contentious row over residency, with incumbent James Lavigne trying in vain to get the Board of Aldermen to challenge Clay Harper’s candidacy on the grounds that Harper didn’t live in the town.
The same scenario is playing out this fall, as Lavigne faces three opponents in his bid for a seventh term — including Harper once again. But this time, the mayor has a weapon that he lacked in 2010: an ordinance that calls for the town to mount residency challenges.
The ordinance, adopted in March, was introduced by Alderman David McQueen, who also is running for mayor and who voted against the same measure in 2010.
Lavigne said he plans to use the ordinance against Harper, which means the town will foot the bill for a court challenge.
The ordinance, Lavigne said, can apply to anyone who runs against “prior aldermen, the mayor or the police chief,” noting that there is a narrow window of seven days to make such a move.
The purpose of the ordinance, he said, is to protect Pearl River, not incumbents. “It’s for the town, really. You don’t want somebody that don’t live in your town running your town. To me, that’s the theory of it,” he said.
But that’s not how Harper sees it. “It’s a complete waste of the taxpayers’ money,” he said, calling the measure unfair and a way for Lavigne to use taxpayer money to attack his opponents.
In 2010, Jacques Berry, a spokesman for then-Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, questioned the ordinance the board was then considering but ultimately rejected.
Any registered voter can contest a candidate’s qualifications, Berry told the St. Tammany News at the time, and “to use town resources to do that is odd.”
Secretary of State Tom Schedler expressed similar concerns this week about the ordinance that was adopted this year.
“As an official who has run for office on numerous occasions and been elected by the people, I find it strange that a government entity could limit voters’ options in this manner,” Schedler said. “The Election Code is clear that a qualified elector is the proper individual to challenge someone’s candidacy after qualifying, not a Board of Aldermen.”
Meg Casper, spokeswoman for Schedler, said the law is silent as to whether a government entity can or cannot file a residency challenge.
She speculated that a judge would rule on that question if there is a challenge to the law.
While Harper is the apparent target of the law, mayoral candidate Claud Stucke also was critical of it. “I don’t think it’s the town’s place to do that,” he said, noting that Lavigne and Town Attorney Ron Guth tried and failed to challenge Harper’s residency in 2010.
“Now they’re going to use the town’s money to do it, and I disagree with it,” he said.
McQueen, however, defended the ordinance, saying that while he had opposed it in 2010, he was persuaded to back the measure this year after talking to residents who favor it, although he said he didn’t know why they felt that way.
At the time of the vote, McQueen, who has served 28 years as an alderman, said he had not decided to run for mayor.
Harper, whose father, Robert Harper, was mayor of Pearl River from 1970 to 1983, acknowledges that he has three houses, including two in Hickory in St. Tammany’s 6th Ward. But he claims the house on Shinglemill Road in Pearl River, where he grew up, as his domicile. That’s where he is registered to vote, he said. He does not claim a homestead exemption on any of his properties.
Under Louisiana law, a person can have only one domicile, defined as where he has “his principal establishment ... in which he makes his habitual residence.”
Harper said he has gotten legal opinions and has looked into state Supreme Court cases in an effort “to prove that I am a legal resident of the town of Pearl River.”
During the last election, Lavigne ended up paying a private investigator $700 in his efforts to prove Harper didn’t live in Pearl River, a charge that appears in the mayor’s campaign finance report.
Lavigne isn’t only fending off a field of would-be successors but also is dealing with the fallout from a withering report by the state legislative auditor that accused him of using town money for personal gain. Those findings were issued in May and touched on 10 problem areas, including the use of public money to buy equipment for private use and using town funds to buy items in an effort to dodge state sales taxes.
That report was turned over to St. Tammany District Attorney Walter Reed’s office and the Louisiana Board of Ethics. Both Lavigne and McQueen said they believe investigators with the Ethics Board will be coming to Pearl River soon.
The legislative auditor also criticized the town in an annual audit released last week for violating state law in budget oversight and property transactions and poor record-keeping.
Lavigne’s opponents said the report will be an issue in the race.
Harper, scoffing at Lavigne’s explanation for the ordinance, hinted at the mayor’s woes. “I think the best protection of the town of Pearl River would be for the mayor to resign,” he said.
McQueen said the reports — and the anticipated arrival of investigators from the Board of Ethics — are giving the town a bad name.
A combative Lavigne, who wrote a fiery response to the legislative auditor earlier this year, is clearly anticipating the attacks. Lavigne said he is not a mudslinger but that Harper and McQueen are lying.
“If they want to start on the wrong foot, they’re picking on the wrong guy,’’ he said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.