LIVINGSTON — The Livingston Parish Council rejected a proposal Thursday to let officials who work at the parish courthouse oversee the operations and upkeep of the building.
Council members feared the proposal would create a committee on which agency heads outnumbered parish government officials, possibly silencing parish government in matters affecting its own checkbook.
“But what’s really driving this, I believe, is four little words,” Councilman Jim Norred said, referring to his efforts to have “In God We Trust” prominently displayed in the new building.
The proposal, drafted by Chief Judge Bob Morrison of the 21st Judicial District, would have created a committee consisting of the parish president, council chairman and heads of the four agencies housed in the courthouse — the sheriff, clerk of court, district attorney and chief judge — to make decisions about the daily operations and use of the parish-owned building.
Clerk of Court Tom Sullivan said the four agencies should have a voice in those decisions because they contributed significantly to the construction costs for the new courthouse and continue to contribute to related projects on the grounds.
The proposal called for allowing each agency to have “sole discretion to make decisions as to any modifications, decorations and internal operations” within their sections of the building. A majority of the committee would have the same authority for common areas, such as the entrance foyer and outside grounds.
Norred said the proposal was the result of a spat over something already adorning the courthouse walls.
In February, the Parish Council adopted a resolution, at Norred’s request, to display the national motto “In God We Trust” in the main entrance alcove of the courthouse.
Norred said those four words had been posted to the courthouse “for about 20 minutes” in October, also at his request, before Sullivan demanded they be taken down.
Sullivan said he and others heavily involved in the courthouse project were still trying to complete the construction process at the time. The last thing they wanted was to put up a sign that could invite controversy — and possibly a lawsuit — as they prepared for a ribbon-cutting and grand opening, he said.
“We don’t have any problem with ‘In God We Trust,’ ” Sullivan said. “We’re all Christian men and would love to have that on all the buildings in this parish. But I don’t think it was handled properly.”
Sheriff Jason Ard told the council the proposed ordinance was not sparked by the squabble over the sign.
“This is not a game, and I’m not trying to score touchdowns, and neither are you,” Ard said. “We’re trying to work together and create something here.”
Councilman Marshall Harris said he was unaware of any other parish with a similar ordinance granting decision-making authority over a parish building to an entity other than the parish government.
Under the proposed ordinance, the committee would work with the parish’s facility manager to coordinate management and maintenance of the building.
“All of y’all are good guys, but what happens in 20 years when some other guys come in and want mahogany floors, the committee approves it and we get the bill?” Harris asked. “That’s how this committee is going to evolve.”
Councilman Ricky Goff said he was surprised, after all the cooperation among the agencies that led to the courthouse’s construction, that this dispute had landed in the center of a Parish Council meeting.
Goff said he has no problem with the formation of a committee, as long as financial decisions affecting the parish budget still come before the council for approval.
“I don’t think any councilman up here would say no to anything realistic (the committee would request), but our concern is the dollars and cents,” Goff said.
District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said the proposed ordinance would not allow the committee to bind the parish financially.
“I don’t think that’s what it says, and I don’t think that’s the intent,” Perrilloux said. “The point is, we’re trying to make decisions when we need to make them.”
Perrilloux pointed out that the other agencies, not parish government, bought the land where the parish government complex, including the courthouse, now sits. The new courthouse wouldn’t have been built without the dedicated efforts of Sullivan and Morrison, Perrilloux said.
Councilwoman Sonya Collins had offered a motion to introduce the ordinance, which Goff seconded for the sake of opening discussion, but Collins later withdrew the motion and the matter was tabled.
Council Chairman Chance Parent instead reinstated the council’s courthouse committee to resolve the issue, appointing Goff, Harris, Norred and Cindy Wale Franz as members. Goff will serve as chairman.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen. Contact her by phone at (225) 336-6981.