Split council hires two attorneys to represent it in lawsuit

The schism in the Gonzales City Council widened Wednesday when members hired two attorneys to represent the council’s opposing points of view in a lawsuit filed against it over a zoning issue.

It’ll mean more expense for a city that’s operating on half of last year’s budget until a new budget is approved — a matter that’s already involved two mayoral vetoes.

“You almost have to do it,” Mayor Barney Arceneaux said of the council’s decision to hire two attorneys.

Each of the attorneys will charge $175 per hour for their work.

“Our back is against the wall,” the mayor said, noting divided council is “on the opposite ends of the spectrum” on the zoning issue at the heart of the lawsuit.

The council approved hiring attorney Robert Barnett, of New Orleans, to represent councilmen Gary Lacombe, Terance Irvin and Timothy Vessel, and to hire attorney Dwight Poirrier, of Gonzales, to represent Arceneaux and councilmen Kirk Boudreaux and Kenny Matassa.

Lacombe, Irvin and Vessel voted against the Aug. 11 rezoning request, prompting the lawsuit; Boudreaux and Matassa voted for the zoning change.

The property owner, Judge Alvin Turner Jr., of the 23rd Judicial District, sued, alleging that Lacombe told him he would vote for the zoning request if Turner followed his advice on the process.

Lacombe’s subsequent vote to the contrary, along with the votes of Vessel and Irvin to deny the request, “is arbitrary and capricious and said actions may void pending agreement to purchase by a potential buyer,” according to Turner’s suit.

The suit asks the court to order the defendants to make the zoning change.

Turner had sought to rezone 28 acres between West Worthey Road and South Darla Avenue for residential lots at 6,000 square feet, instead of the 8,000-square-foot lots required under its current zoning.

City Attorney Ryland Percy said after Wednesday’s special meeting that the council had to look for outside representation because he has been subpoenaed to testify at a hearing on the case, scheduled for Aug. 25 at the Ascension Parish Courthouse in Gonzales.

At Wednesday’s meeting, council members studied a proposed contract with attorney Barnett of New Orleans, as Percy said that Barnett was “being retained to represent the three councilmen (Lacombe, Irvin and Vessel) only.”

Percy also pointed out that the contract with Barnett includes a waiver of a possible conflict of interest.

Barnett explained that another partner at his firm, Guste, Barnett, Schlesinger, Henderson & Alpaugh, was representing a plaintiff in an unrelated lawsuit against the city of Gonzales.

Lacombe made a motion, seconded by Vessel, that the city enter into a contract with Barnett.

The motion passed 3-2, with Matassa and Boudreaux voting no; the two men said after the meeting they voted against the contract because of the waiver included in the document.

Matassa subsequently made his own motion, seconded by Boudreaux, that the city also enter into a contract with attorney Poirrier, to represent himself, Boudreaux and the mayor.

The motion passed 4-1, with Vessel voting against it.

“They believe one thing; we believe the other thing,” Arceneaux said after the meeting. “You certainly don’t want the same attorney representing you.”

Arceneaux said he had informed the three councilmen prior to Wednesday’s meeting that he and the other two councilmen would seek to hire a different attorney.

Turner’s suit is the second suit brought against the city over a zoning issue in the past five months.

South Park Business Center brought suit in April against the city, Lacombe, Vessel and Irvin over a zoning request the three councilmen denied.

“Here we are being sued once again. I’m just appalled,” Arceneaux said.

After the meeting, Lacombe would say only that this is a “very unusual situation.” Irvin and Vessel could not be reached for comment.

The legal matter is just the latest skirmish in the war pitting Vessel, Lacombe and Irvin against the mayor, Boudreaux and Matassa.

The mayor has twice vetoed previous general fund and capital outlay budgets because of changes made by Vessel, Lacombe and Irvin.

The city has operated since June at 50 percent of last year’s budgets, as required by law. No services have been cut at this time.

City Clerk Clay Stafford said the city can spend $6.7 million of its general fund budget, which is the 50 percent mark of last year’s budget. Since June, the city has spent $2.9 million of that, he said.

The city can also spend $3.6 million of its capital outlay budget, according to the 50 percent regulation, and has spent $368,000 of that.

“The city is not going to start hurting until the end of October. We would need to start getting worried and making adjustments” at that time, Stafford said.

Arceneaux will once again bring capital outlay and general fund budgets to the council on Monday.