Livingston council, Ricks at odds over attorney fees

Livingston council members being sued

Parish President Layton Ricks set off a firestorm Monday night when he told the Livingston Parish Council he would not pay a private attorney representing two council members in a lawsuit filed against them personally.

Ricks said court documents Alvin Fairburn & Associates filed Wednesday convinced him he cannot pay the attorney defending council members Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale in the firm’s suit against the pair.

In the filing, the engineering firm said it had no intention of holding the parish financially responsible for comments Harris and Wale made in a WBRZ-TV news story that accused the firm of conspiring in 2011 with the former council clerk to overcharge the parish for engineering work on a road project.

The lawsuit seeks damages against Harris and Wale personally because the firm says the pair were acting outside the scope of their official duties as council members when they made the comments.

Ricks said Monday that he already had reservations about paying for the council members’ defense after a state attorney general’s opinion in October said the parish could pay the attorney, but according to best practices, should not until a judge found them innocent of any wrongdoing.

“We talked about the gray area there,” Ricks said. “But now that we know the parish has been removed from liability, I’d basically be hiring a private attorney for a couple of private councilmen, and I don’t think I can do that.”

Councilman Jim Norred said expecting council members to put their family in financial jeopardy is “ludicrous” and “totally ridiculous.”

“What’s ridiculous is when you as an adult go on camera and say something as an elected official you know you shouldn’t say,” Ricks fired back, adding, “I don’t want this battle, but I’m certainly prepared for it.”

Norred said the council had tried repeatedly to negotiate with Ricks, only to have him snub his nose at them and “find some reason to delay and not do, some reason to delay and not do.”

“I have not snubbed my nose at you. I have bent over backwards to work with you, but I’m not doing it anymore,” Ricks replied. “It can’t get any worse for me because y’all have treated me like crap up here every other Thursday night.”

Harris and Wale said the lawsuit was filed to manipulate the council, and if it works, every council member will one day be a target.

Councilwoman Sonya Collins countered that council members must learn that they cannot say anything they want at any time.

“I’m a schoolteacher. If I have a bad Johnny in my class, I know I can’t talk about that,” Collins said. “There are some things you just don’t discuss.”

Councilman Delos Blackwell asked parish legal adviser Christopher Moody how the council members can know where the line is.

“The line keeps moving,” Moody said. “For the longest time, suits were brought in the official capacity because people were seeking money and you’d want to name a body with money as the defendant — namely, the parish.

“Now we’re seeing a new kind of lawsuit where they’re not seeking money, but action,” Moody said.

The council could protect itself with insurance, but such policies are expensive, he said.

Several council members suggested filing a writ of mandamus to force Ricks to pay the attorney, but Moody discouraged it, saying both branches would have to hire their own attorney.

“I can’t do that, one branch against another,” Moody said.

Blackwell again urged the council and administration to try to work together and solve their differences.

It is a refrain he has repeated, with increasing desperation, at each of the past several council meetings.

“It seems we’ve made one step forward and five backwards,” Blackwell said.