Livingston debates charter change to control legal costs

In an attempt to get better control of legal costs, Livingston Parish’s Charter Review Commission is debating whether to allow the parish government to set up an in-house legal department.

Under the parish’s Home Rule Charter, the 21st Judicial District Attorney’s Office provides legal representation for the parish government. While the charter says the district attorney “shall serve as legal adviser,” historically, the district attorney has appointed someone to serve that role.

The commission’s latest proposal, one of several recommended changes to the charter discussed in recent weeks, would allow the parish government to decline that service and instead hire its own full-time attorney.

The commission’s recommendations will go to the Parish Council for approval and possible inclusion on a future election ballot. Parish voters would then decide which, if any, of the charter changes to accept.

The commission’s proposal for a parish legal department comes in response to mounting legal costs as well as concern by some council members over what they describe as a lack of input on the parish legal adviser’s fee structure.

Current adviser Christopher Moody, also a private attorney in Hammond, bills $175 per hour for handling lawsuits and complex legal issues for the parish, plus a $4,000 monthly fee for day-to-day legal advising.

His bills have totaled roughly $500,000 since he began working for the parish in January 2012.

Moody’s predecessor, Denham Springs attorney Blayne Honeycutt, drew a salary of about $42,000 per year for essentially the same services, records show.

The difference in costs has been a sore spot between some Parish Council members — and now their appointed commission members — and the district attorney.

Commissioners have suggested authorizing the council to create an in-house legal department if it “determines that the parish would be better served by a separate, full-time parish attorney,” according to the wording of a new charter provision under consideration.

District Attorney Scott Perrilloux told commissioners Tuesday he’d rather his office “be in or out” altogether but said later he could accept the proposal.

Still, Perrilloux cautioned the commission about the cost of setting up an in-house legal department, noting that more overhead would be involved than just an attorney’s salary.

Other costs would include support staff like a secretary or paralegal, office space and office supplies, he said, the kinds of costs that are included in Moody’s hourly rates now.

Commission Chairman Jimmy Durbin said his problem with the proposal, as it is currently worded, is that it does not explicitly provide an incoming council with a way to overturn the decision of a prior council, should they want to resume working with the District Attorney’s Office.

Commission legal adviser Bob Morgan suggested another alternative might be found in state law, which allows the parish to request that Perrilloux hire another assistant district attorney to be assigned to Livingston.

Under state law, that attorney would have to be salaried, rather than charge by the hour, Morgan said.

With the parish president and council frequently at odds, and the parish legal adviser often caught in the middle, the only way to resolve disputes between the branches now is to burden taxpayers with the cost of two attorneys, one representing each side, Morgan said.

Perrilloux said the contentious relationship between the two branches is more of an issue than the adviser’s fee structure.

“It’s easy to complain about a lawyer and legal fees, but the real bone of contention has been the last 21/2 years of contentious dysfunction with the council,” Perrilloux said. “Do you change the rules because the players are not acting well? I don’t know. That’s your call as a commission.”