Building security funding at issue

Advocate photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Vermilion Parish officials have been ordered to install security at the parish courthouse, designed by  famed architect A. Hays Town in the 1950s.
Advocate photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Vermilion Parish officials have been ordered to install security at the parish courthouse, designed by famed architect A. Hays Town in the 1950s.

Town building needs upgrade

Vermilion Parish’s governing body on Wednesday will try to hash out how it will pay for court-ordered security at the parish courthouse, a beautiful columned structure located in the middle of a traffic circle in downtown Abbeville.

Earlier this month, 15th Judicial District Judge Edward D. Rubin ordered parish officials — including Sheriff Michael Couvillon, police jurors and District Attorney Mike Harson — to come up with a plan to guard the courthouse designed by A. Hays Town and completed in 1953.

Rubin wrote the order following an inspection this year of the courthouse by the sitting Vermilion Parish grand jury, which found security at the courthouse lacking. Louisiana is one of the states that requires its grand juries to do more than simply look at police accusations against suspects and decide whether to formally charge the accused. The grand juries also inspect jails, public hospitals and courthouses.

“We are concerned about the lack of security present during the court session held in the Vermilion Parish Courthouse. We rate security measures at a poor level,” according to the grand jury report.

Grand jury members found security “insufficient” for visitors and for people who work there, the report stated, and recommended “immediate action.”

Judge Rubin said the agencies responsible for paying for security were not limited to the Police Jury, Sheriff’s Office, district attorney’s office and the Clerk of Court’s office.

A message left Wednesday at Sheriff Couvillon’s office seeking comment was not returned. Clerk of Court Diane Meaux Broussard was out of the office Wednesday and her office said she was unavailable for the week.

Harson said funding courthouse security is the Police Jury’s burden “since they have operational responsibility for the courthouse and thus the responsibility for security.

“My office bears no responsibility for that service,” Harson said in an email.

District 2 Juror Allen LeMaire said security funding is “something we’ve known about for a long time. We knew it was coming. It needs to be done. It’s going to be tough.”

Police Jury President Nathan Granger said the Courthouse Committee and other governing committees are scheduled to meet Wednesday beginning at 5:30 p.m. “to iron things out.”

Granger said the jury needs to consider the needs of other offices in the courthouse, including the Clerk of Court’s Office, the Tax Assessor’s Office, some Sheriff’s Office employees and others.

The costs depend on what avenue jurors take: Do they put a metal detector staffed by sheriff’s deputies at more than one of the three entrances, or one entrance staffed by contract guards with the other doors used as exits only, or something in between?

Granger, LeMaire and juror Wayne Touchet declined to cite cost estimates.

“We’re going to try to get as much help as we can from the sheriff,” LeMaire said.

Touchet disagreed. “(The sheriff) should spend his money on putting criminals in jail,” he said.

Touchet said the police jury, with an annual budget set to the calendar year, almost funded the security before the current year began.

Now jurors will have to make a mid-year adjustment, or amendment, to the budget, Touchet said.

Courthouse security risks were not forefront when Town designed the structure more than 60 years ago. The need for security has grown, however, and now Vermilion has the only nonsecure courthouse in the 15th Judicial District, which covers Vermilion, Lafayette and Acadia parishes.

“There’s been a couple of instances where there was a disturbance in the courthouse,” Touchet said.

The courthouse in Abbeville is referred to as “Courthouse No. 12” by the Vermilion Historical Society, which maintains a website devoted to the history-rich parish.

Included in the history is the series of Vermilion courthouses in which trials were held, records stored, deeds enacted and violence overcome.

An arsonist in 1885 set fire to the wooden courthouse, destroying years of public records, according to editions of The Meridional, the official newspaper of the parish, that are archived on the historical society’s website.

“During the silence and darkness of the early hours of Tuesday morning, some hellish wretch applied the torch to the courthouse and flames fanned by the stiff southeast gale then blowing speedily enveloped the building from foundation to steeple in one huge, roaring seething mass of fire,” The Meridional reported at the time of the fire.

The courthouse was eventually replaced by a then-modern building with a bell tower, Corinthian portico with a mansard roof, a structure completed in 1891 and used until the current courthouse was completed in 1953, according to the historical society.

The Police Jury sold $950,000 in bonds in the late 1940s to fund the construction of the latest courthouse, records at the society show.