Judge: Port Allen mayor can’t fire CFO

PORT ALLEN — A state district judge ruled Wednesday that Mayor Demetric “Deedy” Slaughter lacked authority to fire city Chief Financial Officer Audrey McCain and granted McCain’s request for a preliminary injunction nullifying Slaughter’s action.

Judge Alvin Batiste also ordered the mayor not to interfere with McCain’s job responsibilities as she continues her duties as the city’s chief financial officer and municipal clerk. The mayor had ousted McCain, employed by the city since Oct. 1, 2011, from both positions on Feb. 11.

After dismissing McCain, Slaughter wrote City Council members a letter saying that she fired McCain due to accounting deficiencies cited by an audit of the city’s financial records for fiscal year 2011.

A smiling McCain walked out of 18th Judicial District Court after the judge’s ruling accompanied by her attorneys, Cy D’Aquila, of New Roads, and Seth Dornier, of Baton Rouge.

“I’m hoping that this settles it,” McCain said. “I’m hoping that it’s over, and we can go back to work and continue to do what we do to serve the citizens of Port Allen. I really don’t know what I’m going to face when I get there. But I’m prepared to go to work. I like my job and I really enjoy working with the people I work with in that building. They have all been upset by this.”

Batiste had told McCain in court she may ask for a permanent injunction if necessary. Outside the courthouse, Dornier told reporters the question of seeking a permanent injunction was something he and D’Aquila would have to discuss with McCain in the near future.

Batiste ruled from the bench after hearing nearly three hours of testimony from current and former city officials called to the witness stand to debate the overriding questions lingering over the court proceedings: Whether a chief financial officer is considered a department head and whether the City Council would need to give its approval before a CFO could be hired or fired?

Councilman-at-Large R.J. Loupe and former Mayor Roger Bergeron testified that the city hired McCain on recommendation of the mayor with City Council consent. They testified McCain’s hiring was just the same as the hirings of the city’s chief administrative officer, fire chief and director of public works — all considered city government department heads.

But City Attorney Victor Woods argued before the court that McCain’s role as chief financial officer did not grant her department head status because that authority had not been stipulated as such by city ordinance.

“You will find that nowhere in (the city Code of Ordinances) there was a recommendation to make the CFO a department head,” Woods said in his closing arguments before Batiste. “She was a person hired to assist the mayor in daily activities and duties.”

But Batiste told the moderately packed courtroom it was “common sense” that the chief financial officer would be a city government department head, even though city statutes did not clearly spell that out.

“Of course every position under a city council form of government has to report to the mayor (but) despite that … McCain had duties inherent in that position that she had to do without supervision,” Batiste said. “Plus there’s the fact that she has staff. If it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, then it must be a duck.”

On Feb. 14, Batiste granted McCain’s request for a temporary restraining order allowing her to return that day to her job as chief financial officer.

McCain testified in court Wednesday, however, that she was unable to resume her duties as chief financial officer after the restraining order was issued because Mayor Slaughter wouldn’t give her access to her office or computer.

“I don’t have a key (to my office) even today,” McCain told the court.

When the mayor did finally let her in the office on Tuesday, McCain said, Slaughter hovered over her the entire time, watching everything McCain was doing.

The mayor did not attend Wednesday’s hearing.

Slaughter said during a telephone interview after the hearing she was attending a conference at the time because Woods told her she didn’t need to be at the hearing.

Slaughter denied McCain’s allegations about job interference and said McCain couldn’t access her office computer because it hadn’t yet been serviced by “the computer guy.”

“The judge made his ruling and I’m going to abide by it,” Slaughter said Wednesday afternoon. “The only thing I can do is look at other options to try and appeal it. At the end of the day, it is what it is.”

Slaughter announced at the City Council’s Feb. 13 meeting she planned to hire her brother-in-law Ralph Slaughter as the city’s chief of staff to assume most of McCain’s duties as chief financial officer.

But the issues of hiring Ralph Slaughter and the mayor’s intentions in that regard ran into strong opposition from a majority of City Council members and have yet to be clearly resolved.

“I hate seeing our city separated and divided like this,” Councilman Loupe said after Wednesday’s hearing. “We’re just having some bad times right now.”