Lafayette city and parish leaders are right to address, post haste, longtime policies and practices pertaining to unearned severance pay granted to retiring public workers.
Over the course of at least a decade, maybe longer, Lafayette Consolidated Government has paid out more than $900,000 in unearned severance pay to some 470 retiring employees. That was in addition to payment for accrued sick days and unused vacation days.
A series of news stories that began last week in The Acadiana Advocate revealed the practice may go back longer — perhaps to the 1980s.
The practice of granting unearned payments to departing employees was most recently revealed after a records request by The Advocate. It showed that Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who left office Jan. 6, had instructed LCG to pay four at-will employees from his administration, who would not be retained by the incoming administration, the additional money as part of their parting packages. That payment seems to run counter to the Louisiana Constitution and to previous state Attorney General’s Office rulings.
Article 7, Section 14 prohibits governments from loaning, pledging or donating property or things of value “for any person, association, or corporation, public or private.” Specifically, an assistant attorney general offered the opinion on June 9, 2000, in a Plaquemines Parish case that the Constitution is violated when “the state or one of its subdivisions seeks to give up something of value when it is under no obligation to do so.”
Most specifically and on point were these nuggets from the same ruling: “Article VII, Section 14 prohibited the gratuitous donation of public funds, as in the case of severance pay” … and that the Attorney General’s office “has consistently opined that the payment of a bonus or any other gratuitous, unearned payment to public employees” violates the Constitution.
The short-term lesson: Government leaders ought not be generous to their departing employees while using taxpayer money.
City attorneys are reviewing such payments to at-will employees, while others suggest that the payments to civil service employees are allowed under civil service rules. The City-Parish Civil Service Board has set a Wednesday meeting to discuss the practice and they should: Civil Service rules won’t necessarily trump the Constitution.
City Council Chairman Pat Lewis said it’s unlikely the city would seek to recover the payments, which he said were made in good faith. On such matters, for guidance, council members ought to seek further legal counsel and not substitute their personal druthers.