The Lafayette City Council voted Tuesday to hire its own attorney to provide legal guidance on budget matters and to interpret language in the home rule charter regarding who has control over city tax dollars.
For the first time since Lafayette Consolidated Government was implemented in 1996, separate councils are representing the city of Lafayette and the entire parish. After Mayor-President Josh Guillory presented his proposed budget for fiscal year 2020-21, which begins Nov. 1, conflicts surfaced over the use of tax revenue from the city of Lafayette to balance the parish budget as well as whether the Parish Council has any authority under the charter to vote on budget items funded solely by the city.
The city-parish legal team has opined that the Parish Council may vote on how to spend city tax dollars in departments considered parish wide, such as parks and recreation. The proposed 2020-21 parks and recreation budget contains no funding from the parish. City taxpayers would fund the entire department, but attorneys and Parish Council members believe the charter gives them the power to vote on the parks and recreation budget.
Asked Tuesday by City Councilman Andy Naquin, who generally supports Guillory's initiatives, if the charter allows the City Council to hire its own attorney, City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan, who was hired by Guillory, said the charter does not allow it.
Logan said the ordinance to hire a special attorney for the City Council is a direct violation of the home rule charter. He said there is a Louisiana Supreme Court case and a federal case out of Alexandria to support his opinion.
"The charter does not allow for the council to hire special counsel without the legal department providing that special council," Logan said, adding that a new charter amendment would be needed to allow the City Council to do so.
Council Chairman Pat Lewis said the Lafayette Home Rule Charter allows the council to hire an attorney for special purposes. Logan's opinion is an interpretation based on Alexandria's charter, he said, not Lafayette's.
Logan then cited Section 4-03(E) of the charter which states no special legal counsel can be hired except through a written contract for a specific purpose authorized by a majority vote of the council.
"I represent this council and I represent you and I'm telling you it is an illegal act," Logan said, adding, "It is malfeasance in office ... and a violation of the law."
Lafayette resident Will Thiele, who was a volunteer supporting the 2018 home rule charter change to give Lafayette more control over its money, was dumbfounded by Logan's interpretation of the charter.
"I feel like the administration just declared war on the city of Lafayette," he said, advising the City Council, "You cannot sign any budget at all until you have a court order that says that you and only you will respond to a budget amendment that deals with city-only millages, because the administration will veto it and the city-parish attorney will cite nonsense interpretations and you will lose all control over city tax dollars."
The City Council voted 3-1 to hire its own attorney, Lea Anne Batson, of Baton Rouge. Naquin voted no and Councilman Glenn Lazard was absent.
The City and Parish Councils meet in joint session at 1 p.m. Thursday for budget wrap-up, where they will work out differences on items in the proposed budget. Budget adoption is scheduled for a special joint meeting at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 17.