To pay or not to pay: That is the question of yet another Livingston lawsuit

Livingston Parish government is headed to court again — this time, against itself — to determine which branch has the authority to pay a bill.

The case involves a pair of defamation lawsuits filed against Parish Council members Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale personally for comments they made for a WBRZ-TV report that aired in March 2013.

The report claimed that former council Clerk Mary Kistler, who is now Parish President Layton Ricks’ executive assistant, changed the wording of a resolution to allow Alvin Fairburn & Associates, Ricks’ former employer, to bill for road engineering work the council had not authorized.

The Parish Council repeatedly has voted to pay for Harris’ and Wale’s legal defense, but Ricks has refused to cut the check.

The council voted 6-1 Thursday night to file a lawsuit seeking a court order to force Ricks to pay the bill. Harris and Wale abstained from the vote.

Council Chairman Ricky Goff said the issue is not about the pair’s legal bills; it’s about clarifying the parish president’s duties under Livingston’s Home Rule Charter.

“We need to get a decision on this part of the charter: that when the council passes a resolution, the president should carry out those responsibilities,” Goff said.

In 2011, then-Parish President Mike Grimmer refused — despite two Parish Council resolutions — to pay the Fairburn firm for road engineering work Grimmer said was unauthorized and overbilled.

Fairburn filed a lawsuit in state court, arguing the parish president has no authority under the parish’s charter to veto or disregard a resolution expressing the will of the council.

“It doesn’t say the president’s veto authority shall not apply to resolutions unless the president thinks it’s not owed or unless the president doesn’t agree with the resolution,” Fairburn’s attorney, Julie Baxter, argued in court Sept. 2, 2011. “His remedy, quite frankly, your honor, is to either convince the council not to pass the resolution or to in the next election make sure that there are new council members there.”

Baxter argued on Fairburn’s behalf that the president has no discretion under the charter to decide whether he will “faithfully execute the council’s act.”

Judge Zoey Waguespack, of the 21st Judicial District Court, agreed and ordered Grimmer to sign the check.

Grimmer appealed the decision but lost the parish president’s race in November 2011 before the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal could hear the case.

Ricks signed the disputed $453,000 check immediately after taking office in January 2012, saying the council resolutions and court order compelled him to do so.

In the legal fees dispute, however, Ricks has argued that a state attorney general’s opinion supports his stance in not paying the bill until the lawsuits are over.

The attorney general’s opinion, issued Oct. 7, says the Parish Council could choose to pay the bill if it determines Harris and Wale were acting as public officials when they made the comments.

However, the opinion also recommends the parish withhold payment until the lawsuits are over, in case the court decides the council members acted outside the scope of their official duties and should be held personally liable for their comments.

Ricks said Livingston Parish taxpayers do not want him to pay the bill, and he urged the council not to file their lawsuit.

“To sue a fellow member of the government and spend more taxpayer dollars when I never said I would not pay, I think is just a misuse of funding,” Ricks said. “And I hate to see us start suing one another. We’ve got enough lawsuits and enough things going on.”

Councilwoman Sonya Collins also was against the move and voted no, but another frequent Ricks ally on the council, Joan Landry, supported seeking a court order to compel payment.

“This council, by resolution, which you’re supposed to follow, voted to pay their bill whether they win or lose,” Landry told Ricks before the vote. “And I’m sorry it’s gone to this point, but you can stop it if you wanted to. Not us. You can stop it. You can pay the bill.”

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.