Judges issues injunction; Roper hearing likely postponed

A personnel hearing scheduled Wednesday for Mary Roper to contest her termination as East Baton Rouge Parish attorney is expected to be postponed indefinitely after District Judge Michael Caldwell granted an injunction Wednesday morning.

The injunction prevents a vote until he can hear arguments about whether her due process rights were violated.

A hearing in district court is scheduled for Aug. 26.

The bitter feud between Roper and the Baton Rouge Metro Council reignited late Tuesday afternoon when Roper unexpectedly filed suit in district court over the council’s attempts to remove her.

Roper, who serves as the city-parish’s chief attorney, has been at odds with a faction of the council for months and the council had sought her removal with a public hearing that was initially scheduled in June.

The hearing scheduled Wednesday at 2 p.m. for Roper to contest her termination as parish attorney will be postponed indefinitely. District Judge Michael Caldwell this morning granted an injunction preventing the vote until he can hear arguments about whether her due process rights were violated.

A hearing in district court is scheduled for Aug. 26.

The hearing was deferred until Wednesday after she struck a deal to resign from her post in exchange for being able to take another position in the city-parish retirement system, something that would allow her to retain her city benefits and pension package.

She was expected to start her new job as counsel for the retirement system this past Monday, but negotiations broke down after retirement system officials refused to agree to work conditions submitted by Roper.

“It is unfortunate that it had to come to this, as my preference would have been an amicable resolution,” Roper said in a text message late Tuesday afternoon after filing the suit.

The lawsuit was filed at 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday by her attorney Wade Shows, who served as parish attorney before Roper was appointed in 2008.

In her suit, Roper says her bosses who sit on the Metro Council failed to provide sufficient grounds for terminating her. She also takes issue with the process laid out that allows her to contest her termination.

The suit asks the court to declare Roper is not an at-will employee who can be fired without cause and to force the council to afford her appropriate due process in her personnel hearing.

In the short term, Shows said, he will seek an injunction Wednesday morning to prohibit the Metro Council from holding the hearing to vote on her termination. The hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. in City Hall.

Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe said Roper and every attorney in her office are considered at-will employees. Under the Plan of Government, Loupe said, unclassified employees like Roper can be terminated without having to prove cause.

“The process we’re using was all approved by the Parish Attorney’s Office, but now when it’s applied to her, it’s unconstitutional,” Loupe said. “It doesn’t make any sense. You throw yourself two going away parties and then you sue the Metro Council. This is bizarre.”

Roper’s staff held going away parties for her on Thursday and Friday of last week.

The lawsuit accuses an unnamed group of the Metro Council of conspiring to terminate her without cause. It uses quotes from other council members who supported her during a meeting as ammunition, suggesting a segment of the council was working to oust Roper.

“This whole process to me is ridiculous. It is completely unfair,” the suit quotes Councilman Tara Wicker saying during a June meeting to lay out the procedures of Roper’s termination hearing.

Shows said the council agreed to a variety of procedural requests for the personnel hearing — including the ability to call witnesses, have an impartial mediator and cross examine witnesses — which they have since reneged on.

“I want them to honor the commitment they gave me for the appropriate procedures which afford her due process,” Shows said, adding that council members have refused depositions, subpoenas and failed to appoint a mediator.

Roper, who is paid $120,994 annually, worked for the Parish Attorney’s Office for more than 20 years.

Appointed to the top position in 2008, she found herself crosswise with Loupe when he took office not long after her appointment. He has led an effort, supported by several other council members, to remove Roper.

Roper was asked to take leave a few months ago when it was discovered she had sent her husband, another city-parish employee, the source codes for the city-parish’s copyrighted software program — which was being investigated because another employee was selling it as his own.

Roper said she was just asking for technical help from her husband, who is a software programmer, while applying for the copyright. But some council members framed the action as an unauthorized disclosure of proprietary information.

Some council members have since added on to their list of grievances, complaining they’ve lost confidence in Roper’s ability to manage her office and questioning whether it’s appropriate for her to hold a second job writing appeals for indigent defendants.

Roper has accused attorneys sitting on the council of playing politics and trying to remove her so they can appoint a friend to the position.

The parish attorney is the lawyer for the Metro Council, the Mayor’s Office and the city-parish departments and agencies.

At the end of July, the Metro Council approved the creation of the legal counsel position in the retirement system, which was offered to Roper. If she had accepted the job, she would have earned $95,000 per year.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz/.