Lafayette board approves hiring security for meetings

The Lafayette Parish School Board voted Wednesday to allow its board president to hire security to provide order and crowd control at future meetings.

Board President Hunter Beasley said he and the executive committee would meet soon to draft a policy for the board’s consideration.

Prior to the vote, board member Greg Awbrey cited recent meetings where audience members spoke out from the crowd and it was difficult to maintain order in the board room.

Awbrey suggested the board consider giving its president the discretion to hire security on an as-needed basis.

Mark Babineaux, a former board president, said unexpected issues would sometimes prompt emotional responses from some audience members.

“It was a little bit unnerving not to be able to do anything about it because we didn’t have any security,” Babineaux said. “Sometimes, it comes from very, very unexpected places because when you’re dealing with the issues we are, it necessarily involves a lot of emotion.”

The board has hired security for meetings in the past when they were taking up controversial issues, particularly, if a large crowd is expected.

That practice has been rare.

The last time the board hired security was for its special meeting on Feb. 13 to discuss an insurance consultant’s demand for payment of $200,000 for work related to the selection of an insurance administrator for the board’s self-funded health insurance plan.

The consultant, hired by the board in June, worked without a contract and the board ultimately rejected the consultant’s recommendation of an administrator.

In a closed-door discussion about the consultant’s demand or payment Feb. 5, conversations grew heated and ended with board member Tehmi Chassion calling the police to file a complaint against Superintendent Pat Cooper.

Chassion alleged Cooper yelled at him and grabbed him during the meeting with other board members and an assistant district attorney, Roger Hamilton. Cooper denied the claim, although he said he did touch Chassion’s arm.

No arrest was made.

Beasley suggested the hiring of a security officer, adding it’s not uncommon for public bodies to have security present.

Beasley has said it could cost about $2,400 a year for security, averaging $100 per four-hour meeting. Last year, meetings often exceeded the five-hour mark.

Security guards or police officers at public meetings aren’t unusual. Plainclothes Lafayette police officers provide security at city-parish council meetings.

The board voted unanimously to give the board president authority to hire security to keep order at board meetings.

In other matters, the board voted against two proposals to help offset a projected $10.4 million shortfall in the 2014-15 budget.

In a 7-2 vote, the board voted to retain its policy that requires the board to reserve three months of operating expenses in its rainy day fund. Staff had proposed reducing the fund to only two months, which would free up about $24 million.

Before the board could vote on his motion, board member Shelton Cobb proposed the board consider changing the policy to require 2 to 2½ months of operating expenses in the rainy day fund in order to provide some additional funding in the upcoming year.

“We should at least investigate what are the possible uses that could be made and whether we would agree with them or not, rather than saying no to the proposition all together,” Cobb said.

Cobb’s substitute motion was defeated in a 3-6 vote.

Those supporting the motion were Cobb, Beasley and Mark Cockerham. Voting against his motion were: Awbrey, Babineaux, Kermit Bouillion, Tommy Angelle, Rae Trahan and Chassion.

Awbrey said the board needs to live within its means and cautioned changing the policy.

Voting in support of retaining its rainy day fund policy were: Awbrey, Babineaux, Bouillion, Beasley, Angelle, Trahan and Chassion. Voting against were: Cobb and Cockerham.

Also at the meeting, the board’s former general counsel, Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton, sat side-by-side with the newly hired interim general counsel, Jon Guice.

Guice is with the firm Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, which the board hired last month after relieving the District Attorney’s Office as its general counsel in November.

The private firm, with offices in Monroe and Baton Rouge, is on the district’s payroll as its special counsel to handle employee litigation.

Prior to the board meeting, Guice said he was attending the meeting at approved special counsel rates. For Guice’s services, that’s $175 an hour. He also is paid for travel.

He said the firm is still negotiating rates with the board as interim counsel, such as working on reduced travel expenses.

State law requires district attorney’s offices to provide general counsel services to school boards, but doesn’t require boards to accept those services.

State law allows boards to hire and set their own fees for general counsel, however, it requires boards receive attorney general approval to hire special counsel. The attorney general also caps special counsel rates at $175 an hour.