Appeals court overturns contempt ruling against Durel

A state appeals court has overturned a local judge’s ruling that Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel be held in contempt of court for removing three Lafayette Housing Authority board members after the judge had reinstated them.

Fifteenth Judicial District Judge Ed Rubin had fined Durel $258 and ordered him to perform eight hours of community service or serve 15 days in jail in the 2011 contempt finding.

The sentence was on hold pending an appeal by Durel.

The state 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal ruled in a decision published Wednesday that the city-parish president had the legal authority to oust the LHA board, which oversees low-income housing programs in Lafayette.

The contempt ruling against Durel came amid a drawn-out controversy over the board’s membership following a state audit in 2010 that found widespread problems with the agency’s management and spending.

The director and assistant director resigned shortly after the audit was made public.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the primary funding source for public housing projects, took over management of LHA in 2011, citing “numerous financial deficiencies over the past three years and a leadership vacuum.”

HUD disbanded the local board, making moot the legal questions over whether the local LHA board members should stay or go.

But three board members — John Freeman, Joe Dennis and Leon Simmons — continued to pursue the contempt allegation against Durel for his efforts to remove them before HUD took over.

“I feel very strongly that the law was violated,” Freeman said Wednesday.

Freeman said he believes there was value in a public fight over Durel’s decision to remove the board members, despite this week’s appeals court ruling.

“I still think that this had to be up for public dialogue and public discussion,” Freeman said.

Durel first removed the three men from the LHA board in 2010, pointing to the critical audit and what he said was lax oversight by the board.

Dennis, Simmons and Freeman countered with a lawsuit challenging their dismissal. They argued they were a volunteer board that had little control over the daily management of the housing authority and should not have been blamed for its failings.

Rubin reinstated the three men in a ruling that said Durel did not give sufficient legal grounds for their removal.

Durel then dismissed the three men a second time, alleging an improper closed-door meeting of the board, which is generally required to meet in public.

Dennis, Simmons and Freeman then asked Rubin to hold Durel in contempt for what they argued was a violation of the judge’s earlier order reinstating them.

The five-judge appeals panel ruled this week in the 4-1 decision that Durel had authority to remove the board members a second time over the issue of the closed-door meeting.

Judges Jimmie C. Peters, Marc T. Amy, J. David Painter and Phyllis M. Keaty voted to overturn the contempt finding. Judge Sylvia R. Cooks dissented.

Freeman said no decision has been made on whether the former LHA board members will ask the state Supreme Court to hear the case or ask the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider its decision.

Durel could not be reached Wednesday for comment on the appeals court decision.

He did not respond to a telephone message and two emails.