Hearing set Wednesday on Livingston Council lawsuit against Ricks _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by LIBBY ISENHOWER -- Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks.

The Livingston Parish Council has asked a state court to order Parish President Layton Ricks to pay the legal bills of two council members sued personally for comments they made about his former employer.

The lawsuit, filed late Tuesday in 21st Judicial District Court, is the latest development in an ongoing battle between the two branches of government over whether the parish should pay for the council members’ defense.

Ricks declined to comment on the case Wednesday afternoon, saying he had not yet been served.

In its lawsuit, the council said Ricks “has absolutely no discretion whether or not he wishes to carry out” the council’s resolutions ordering him to pay the legal bills of council members Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale.

The council seeks a writ of mandamus — a court order compelling a public official to act — forcing Ricks to pay.

Harris and Wale face a pair of lawsuits filed by Alvin Fairburn & Associates, where Ricks worked before his election, and by Mary Kistler, the former council clerk and Ricks’ executive assistant.

The lawsuits claim Harris and Wale made defamatory statements about the firm and Kistler in a WBRZ-TV report that aired in March 2013. The report claimed Kistler had changed the wording of a resolution to allow the firm to bill for road engineering work the council had not authorized.

Fairburn and Kistler seek damages from the two council members personally, not from the parish.

The Parish Council has twice ordered Ricks to pay Harris’ and Wale’s legal bills and, on July 24, set a seven-day deadline for payment. Ricks repeatedly has refused, citing a state attorney general opinion that suggested withholding payment until after a judgment is rendered in the case.

The opinion, issued Oct. 7, also said the Parish Council could choose to pay the bills if it determined that Harris and Wale were acting as public officials when they made the comments.

Ricks’ refusal to pay the pair’s attorney effectively vetoes the council’s resolutions — an action the parish’s Home Rule Charter does not allow, the council’s lawsuit states.

“While the parish president may direct and supervise all departments, offices and agencies of the parish government, he does not have the discretion in deciding whether or not to faithfully execute a resolution passed by the council,” the lawsuit states.

Ricks has said he doesn’t want to pay the bills until the lawsuits are over, in case the court decides Harris and Wale were personally responsible and the parish did not owe the money.

The council’s lawsuit has been assigned to state District Judge Brenda Ricks, no relation to the parish president.

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.