Lafayette board defies Cooper, approves counsel contract

Action overrides Lafayette school superintendent’s request to negotiate terms

The Lafayette Parish School Board approved a contract Wednesday with its interim general counsel, over the objections of the school system’s superintendent.

Superintendent Pat Cooper maintained the board failed to follow its own policies when it hired the firm of Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice as its interim general counsel.

The board hired the law firm in February to handle its legal business on an interim basis until a general counsel can be hired.

The board chose to relieve the District Attorney’s office from serving as the system’s general counsel in November.

The contract with Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice as interim general council, approved in a 6-3 vote, sets rates similar to those in its special counsel contract, which caps attorney fees at $175, as approved by the state.

The contract was on the board’s agenda as an item for introduction only but was moved to the action agenda by a two-thirds majority vote of the board.

Board members Greg Awbrey, Mark Allen Babineaux, Hunter Beasley, Tommy Angelle, Rae Trahan and Tehmi Chassion voted for the contract. Board members Shelton Cobb, Kermit Bouillion and Mark Cockerham voted against the contract approval.

Cooper has challenged the board’s selection of the firm to serve as its interim general counsel, contending the board failed to follow its own policies in votes that paved the way for the selection.

Cooper had refused to pay the firm for sending attorney Jon Guice to attend the board’s regular meeting on March 5. Guice also was present at Wednesday’s meeting.

Cooper said Wednesday that it is his obligation to protect the board and he wanted his objections known.

“I’m glad to sign it or not sign it — whatever you choose,” Cooper said prior to the board’s vote. “I just want to make sure that (my objections) are recognized —that I’ve tried to protect the board and keep us in line.”

Given his concerns, Cooper had requested that the board, by a vote, direct him to negotiate a contract with the firm and for payment for services the firm performed without a contract. His request, supported by Cobb, was on the board’s agenda as an introduction item.

An effort to move Cooper’s request to the action agenda failed to receive a two-thirds majority vote. The proposal only drew support from board members Cobb, Cockerham and Bouillion. With the board’s vote Wednesday to approve the contract, Cooper’s request appears to be moot.

At one point, the board considered including language requiring both the board president and Cooper to sign the contract, but Cooper’s name was dropped from the motion after Chassion objected.

Chassion said he couldn’t support an action that mandated Cooper to do something that’s part of the superintendent’s job anyway. Chassion said that if the board supported the motion, they’d in effect be forcing Cooper to sign the document and said Cooper could file a lawsuit.

Cooper shook his head, “no” — indicating that was not his intent.

Beasley told Chassion he was speculating about a possible lawsuit filing. But Chassion continued to question Cooper about why he wanted the board to stipulate that he sign the document.

“It’s his duty. I’m not going to order him to do something that he should do otherwise,” Chassion said.

Guice recused himself from answering questions Cooper and Chassion had related to the contract at Wednesday’s meeting, saying it would be unethical for him to give an opinion since his firm has a personal interest in the matter.

The board’s search for permanent general counsel could end in July. That’s when the search committee charged with issuing a request for interested law firms to submit their qualifications for the job, and reviewing and interviewing the applicants, plans to make a recommendation to the full board.

Other school districts in the area either hire an attorney to act as general counsel or employ in-house counsel, an attorney who is a full-time school district employee.