AG’s Office: No evidence Ascension councilman violated open meeting law

The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office has found no evidence that Ascension Parish Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee violated state open meetings law when he polled some Parish Council members ahead of a public meeting this spring and will not pursue civil penalties, the office said Tuesday.

The AG’s Office probed an April 8 complaint from Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez over an email that Satterlee had sent to Council Chairman Chris Loar, a parish legal adviser and the district attorney.

In the April 6 email, Satterlee claimed he had polled four members of the council before the April 3 council meeting about an item he wanted on the council agenda that night in Donaldsonville but that failed to get a vote.

Under state open meetings law, it is illegal to poll a quorum of a public body outside a public meeting about their future vote.

Six members of the 11-member Parish Council constitute a quorum, or a majority. Based on Satterlee’s email, only five council members, including Satterlee, were involved in polling by Satterlee.

“As there is no evidence of a knowing or willful violation of the open meetings law, civil penalties are not appropriate,” Laura Gerdes Colligan, spokeswoman for Attorney General James D. “Buddy” Caldwell, said Tuesday.

Under state law, any member of a public body who “knowingly and willfully participates” in a meeting in violation of the open meetings law can be penalized up to $100 per violation.

Satterlee, who claimed Tuesday he is the victim of a “smear” campaign, often finds himself on the opposite side of issues with Martinez and Loar and frequently speaks out about parliamentary procedure at council meetings and what he sees as other parish leaders’ failure to include the public in parish decision-making.

In the April 8 email, Satterlee made the claims about polling as a way to press Loar to put the appointment of Satterlee’s friend and political ally, Milton Clouatre, on a future council meeting agenda. Clouatre was seeking a post on the parish Board of Adjustments.

On April 3 and again on June 5, Clouatre failed to get a vote because the committee that vets applicants did not make a recommendation. Loar has refused to put the opening on the agenda without a recommendation.

Though AG’s Office investigators found no wrongdoing, the office issued an opinion dated June 11, made public late last week, reviewing how open meetings law views polling. Colligan said that with the opinion, the AG’s Office considers the matter closed.

“Knowing how a majority of the public body will vote on a matter prior to the actual vote at a properly noticed public meeting can mean that a measure passes with little debate or that a measure is never brought up for debate,” the opinion says.

Satterlee did not dispute Tuesday that he polled some council members, but challenged that he polled a quorum and charged that the complaint was an attempt by Martinez and Loar to make him look bad with elections next year.

“There is no story here. This is just a Tommy Martinez-Chris Loar smear deal again,” Satterlee said.

In his email, he claimed a six-person majority might support appointing Clouatre but said he only polled four members, Councilmen Todd Lambert, Bryan Melancon, Oliver Joseph and Travis Turner.

Satterlee speculated that Councilwoman Teri Casso, after himself, could be the sixth possible vote for Clouatre, though Satterlee wrote he based that on secondhand information and not by directly polling her. In fact, Casso twice offered no recommendation at the committee level for Clouatre and said earlier this month that she could not support his appointment because of his past service on the parish Planning and Zoning Commission.

In the interview Tuesday, Satterlee claimed he had text messages on his phone, to which he did not respond, that he says showed at least nine council members have polled one another about an unrelated matter on road funding.

“If I’m guilty of something, then all of them are guilty, as well,” he said.

Loar declined comment Tuesday.

Martinez said he filed the complaint after receiving the email, which was copied to District Attorney Ricky Babin and Assistant District Attorney O’Neil Parenton Jr.

Though Martinez’s complaint letter says he wanted an investigation into a possible violation of the open meetings law, Martinez said Tuesday that he actually wanted an opinion to put the issue of polling in black and white for the council.

“I opted just to get an opinion so that way now the council knows they’re not supposed to be polling,” he said.

Parenton, the parish attorney, said he had earlier issued an opinion on a dispute over setting the council agenda, which is, in part, an outgrowth of the Clouatre fight, and immediately referred the email to the Attorney General’s Office.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave