Livingston president and council argue over hiring engineer

Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks and Parish Council members traded barbs Thursday night over whether Ricks has the authority to hire an engineer to work on a parishwide road overlay project without the council’s approval.

The Parish Council was set to vote Thursday on publishing requests for qualifications for contractors to bid on a long-delayed road overlay project to address much-needed parish road work.

Ricks then told the council that he had hired BKI Engineering of New Orleans to begin work on the project, but that the firm could not move forward until the council voted to commit funds to the project.

Council Chairman Marshall Harris then asked Ricks whether he hired an engineer without council approval.

“Absolutely,” Ricks replied. “That’s my job.”

Councilman Jim Norred said the parish’s home rule charter says the parish president can sign contracts for projects and services that are identified in the parish’s budget. He said contracts for unbudgeted projects, such as the road overlay project, must be submitted to the council for approval.

“What happened to the spirit of cooperation and transparency that we kept hearing about?” Norred asked. “I don’t see it. I don’t buy it.”

Ricks argued that he has the authority under the home rule charter to hire the engineer.

He said previous Parish President Mike Grimmer had signed a similar contract with an engineering firm for a previous project and that the council back then agreed he had the authority to do so.

“Now you’re saying because I’ve made this decision, you don’t agree that I don’t have the right to do that?” Ricks said.

Norred said Ricks should have at least contacted the council to say he was considering hiring the firm.

Ricks said the engineer will receive no compensation until the council obligates the funds.

“I’m trying to get you to move forward on the road program,” Ricks said. “I’m trying to obligate the funds and get these roads done.”

Norred and Harris asked parish attorney Chris Moody several times if Ricks has the authority to enter such a contract.

Moody said he had discussed it with Ricks but said it’s better policy to submit any bid contract to the council for approval.

Moody, though, said Ricks may have the authority to hire the engineer.

“It’s not clear to me that that’s required,” he said. “Your charter is not that clear about it.”

Harris argued that requests for bids would get a better quote for the road work and save the taxpayers money.

“Why does this council sit here if you’re going to pick and choose and do all the contracts and we never approve a contract?” he said.

Ricks said he got a good price on the BKI contract and that the engineer would work with the council members to identify roads that need work.

“You went and signed a contract without the council’s approval. That’s the bottom line,” Harris said.

The council later decided, on Delos Blackwell’s motion, to table its vote on requesting bids for the road overlay project, saying there was too much information up in the air.

The council, however, did approve a road priority list for the overlay project.

The road discussion came after the council put off acting on a measure to call for an election to amend the parish’s home rule charter.

Norred had placed an item on the council’s agenda to call for the election to address what have been called “gray areas” in the charter involving the council’s and president’s authorities.

Norred moved to table the item after he said he discovered that state law requires a commission to be formed anytime a home rule charter change is brought up.

The council has almost voted in the past to set up a commission, but Ricks has asked for authority to make some appointments to the commission.