EBR judge hears arguments in Mary Roper case

The Baton Rouge Metro Council, like any individual, has the right to fire and hire its legal representation, an attorney for the council argued in District Court on Tuesday. But Mary Roper’s attorney argued that the council has deprived the parish attorney of a fair opportunity to refute the allegations against her and appeal to keep her job.

The two sides argued their cases in the 19th District Court before Judge Michael Caldwell, who said he would decide on Friday whether to dismiss Roper’s lawsuit against her bosses on the Metro Council over attempts to remove her from her position as the city-parish government’s top lawyer.

If the case is dismissed, the Metro Council can move forward with a hearing to terminate Roper on Sept. 10.

Roper filed a lawsuit against the Metro Council earlier this month to stave off a scheduled vote to fire her. In her suit she claims the council hasn’t provided sufficient grounds to remove her, and it asks the court to declare that she is not an at-will employee. The suit also challenges the process laid out for her to contest the termination.

Roper’s attorney, Wade Shows, who served as parish attorney before her, told the judge on Tuesday that his client merely wants the court to outline the proper procedures the council must follow during a hearing. He said the council has reneged on promises made about how the personnel hearing would be handled, and that the procedures are not clearly laid out in the city-parish plan of government.

Murphy Foster III, an attorney representing the Metro Council, said the council has the right to decide who its attorney will be. Further, he said the parish attorney is a political appointee and an at-will employee whom the Metro Council has the right to fire at its own discretion.

“Louisiana is an at-will state, it has been an at-will state and it will continue to be one,” Foster said.

Shows argued that the council initially promised to set parameters in the termination hearing that would guarantee Roper has a chance to fairly defend herself. But the council attempted to move forward with a hearing without meeting some of those conditions, such as appointing an impartial mediator, he said.

Outside the courthouse, Foster said procedures the council agreed to were unofficial commitments because the council did not take a vote on the process.

Caldwell expressed concerns about weighing in before the council had taken any action against Roper. He suggested it might be more appropriate for Roper to ask him whether the council violated her rights after it had taken action.

Shows argued that the council’s vote is final and can’t be appealed, which is why they wanted court intervention before the vote takes place.

Caldwell said he’d make his decision Friday morning on whether to dismiss Roper’s lawsuit.

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse after the hearing, Roper said she is only seeking a fair process to defend herself against the council’s allegations — which have included mismanagement and improperly disclosing proprietary information.

Asked if she thought her recent actions against the council had burned a bridge, Roper said she hoped council members could maintain objectivity.

“I would hope they would uphold their duties as council members and give this process the due process it’s supposed to have,” she said. “I hope they haven’t made a predetermined decision.”

Roper, who has served in the Parish Attorney’s Office for more than 20 years, also said she feels like she has some allies on the council who support her and respect her body of work.

Roper was placed on administrative leave last week. Officials blocked her access to her government emails and changed the locks in her office, which Roper said was an unnecessary and premature move.

“I don’t see the purpose of it other than to take an aggressive action toward me,” she said. “So if that is the tenor of the hearing we’re going into then that underscores the need for this process to be fair.”

Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe, who attended the proceedings, said the actions taken to limit Roper’s access were necessary considering a recent incident in which she returned to her office from vacation, tried to fire her first assistant and threatened to sue other employees, accusing them of disloyalty.

He said Roper ultimately will have a fair opportunity to defend herself.

“Ms. Roper deserves a fair hearing, a transparent hearing and she can call any witness she wants as far as I’m concerned,” Loupe said. “I think the general public needs to know the allegations against her.”

If Caldwell rules against dismissing the suit on Friday, he will hear arguments on Sept. 5 about whether to grant a preliminary injunction to block the Metro Council from proceeding with a Sept. 10 vote to remove her.

For months, Roper has been at odds with some on the council who have said they’ve lost confidence in her ability to serve and want her removed.

Hearings to remove Roper were initially scheduled for May but were twice deferred to give her an opportunity to negotiate a new job within city-parish government and retain her pension. She ultimately rejected a job with the City-Parish Retirement System as legal counsel before filing her suit against the counsel.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/.