Lafayette board’s decision on legal counsel costing taxpayers

It’s unclear how much the Lafayette Parish School Board’s decision to hire a law firm as its general counsel will end up costing taxpayers.

The district’s Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry said Friday that the potential cost for hiring a firm hasn’t yet been calculated and those details will be worked out when board members negotiate a contract with the firm.

The services of general counsel have historically been provided by the District Attorney’s Office, but the board severed that relationship in a dispute related to the board’s call for an investigation of Superintendent Pat Cooper.

Last week, the board selected its current special counsel, Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, which typically handles personnel litigation matters, as interim general counsel until it hires a permanent replacement.

While state law requires the Attorney General’s Office to approve school boards’ requests to hire special counsel and sets allowable rates, school boards are allowed to employ and set their own rates when hiring general counsel.

The Attorney General’s Office caps special counsel services at $175 an hour, depending upon the experience of the attorney.

Guidry said based on the Attorney General’s cap, the district currently pays the firm $175 an hour for work by its more experienced attorneys. Based on that figure, an experienced attorney’s attendance at a 4.5-hour board meeting could cost $787.50.

The board voted in November to relieve the District Attorney’s Office as its general counsel after Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton wrote the Attorney General’s Office that the board’s request to hire a law firm to investigate the superintendent was unwarranted. Since then, Hamilton has continued to serve as the board’s attorney until it named interim general counsel on Feb. 19.

The transition of legal services isn’t immediate.

The DA’s Office must submit a letter and resolution acknowledging the board’s action to relieve the DA’s Office as the board’s general counsel and its decision to hire interim counsel to the Attorney General’s Office, Hamilton said.

The documentation likely will be completed and signed within the next week, Hamilton said.

Meanwhile, the board has yet to start its search to hire a permanent replacement for its day-to-day legal needs. In late December, the board created a search committee that includes board President Hunter Beasley and members Tommy Angelle, Rae Trahan, Kermit Bouillion and Mark Cockerham.

Beasley said Friday that the committee will soon set meeting dates. He said its progress had been delayed by the holidays and a change in board leadership.

The issue of legal services was a source of debate among some school board members and the superintendent. Cooper complained that board members were calling the firm for legal advice without the full board’s knowledge or approval and that the calls were racking up legal charges.

In a November email to the firm, Cooper alerted the firm that the district would no longer approve payment for services if the firm failed to provide details of which district staff member initiated a request for legal advice or if the full board or board president had not initiated the request.

The district plans to withhold $197.50 from the firm’s latest invoice, based on district records and a copy of an invoice from January for December services.

The withheld amount is related to board member Mark Allen Babineaux’s “extended telephone conference” about the procedure for reconsidering a vote on a resolution. The phone call cost $122.50. The other charge — $75 — was removed by Cooper because it offered no information on who requested a review of a personnel issue.