Lafayette School Board still struggling over legal counsel issue

Members divided on counsel hire

A committee has been formed to search for new general counsel for the Lafayette Parish School Board in the midst of the battle over appointing counsel other than the District Attorney’s Office.

That battle has divided the School Board, pulling Superintendent Pat Cooper and the District Attorney’s Office into the fray.

The battle stems from some board members’ disapproval of the way the board attorney, Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton, handled the board’s pending request to hire a law firm to investigate complaints against Cooper. In a letter to the Attorney General’s Office, Hamilton had said he found no cause for an investigation and would ask the board to rescind its resolution to hire attorneys for the investigation.

At the board’s Dec. 18 meeting, board President Shelton Cobb appointed four board members to the search committee: Tommy Angelle, Rae Trahan, Kermit Bouillion and Mark Cockerham. Cobb initially appointed Tehmi Chassion to join the search committee, but Chassion declined, citing time conflicts.

As part of the search process, the committee members will issue a request for proposals for legal services and then interview and review candidates before making its recommendation to the board for approval. It’s unlikely the committee will be able meet before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the legal debate continues on whether the board can move ahead to hire interim counsel, a decision slowed by debate over procedure and policy.

On Nov. 20, the board voted to relieve the District Attorney’s Office as its general counsel, apparently ending services provided at no cost to the board for about 15 years.

It appears, however, the board will have Hamilton’s guidance for a bit longer.

An attempt to hire interim counsel failed on Dec. 4 in a 4-4 vote.

Hamilton told board members at the Dec. 18 meeting that the District Attorney’s Office is still general counsel until they hire an interim firm.

Cooper has repeatedly challenged the board’s decision to relieve the DA’s Office, saying the board’s current policy names the DA’s Office as its official counsel.

At Wednesday’s meeting, however, the board approved revisions to that policy, allowing the board to select counsel other than the District Attorney’s Office. Cooper may still challenge that revision, which he said was not submitted to him prior to the vote, as required by board policy; however, he did sign off on the School Board’s meeting agenda prior to the meeting.

An attempt that night to defer a decision on the revision received support of only four of the nine board members: Cobb, Hunter Beasley, Kermit Bouillion and Cockerham.

Voting in support of the revision were: Greg Awbrey, Mark Allen Babineaux, Angelle, Trahan and Chassion.

On Friday, Cobb said he asked the board’s special counsel, Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, to weigh in on that policy issue and was still awaiting a response.

“There are many issues that arose on the board floor the other day like whether policy was followed in the submission of changes of policy,” Cobb said. “I’m asking our attorneys to clarify everything for everybody so we can start off on the right foot in 2014.”