State audit: Port Allen mayor may have violated law

A legislative audit report released Monday recommends that Port Allen seek a court ruling to resolve the question of Mayor Demetric Slaughter’s salary because the City Council may not have properly set the salary in its ordinances.

The report also says Slaughter and her predecessor, Roger Bergeron, received a $6,000 annual car allowance that was neither budgeted nor approved by a council-passed ordinance, an action that may violate state law.

A third finding noted that Slaughter may have violated state law by receiving $2,432 as reimbursement for January travel expenses related to her trip to Washington, D.C.

The mayor’s explanation for the travel reimbursement was that she was to “network, meet and greet” staffers in U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office and Landrieu; “represent the city of Port Allen” at the inauguration of President Barack Obama; and travel through the Washington area “to get ideas and concepts of riverfront development and other economic development projects.”

However, the audit report says that since Slaughter could not provide “an instance of city business conducted on this trip, she may have violated state law” by getting reimbursed from public funds.

The audit recommended that the city seek legal advice as to the appropriate actions to be taken to recoup the city funds improperly used to reimburse the mayor’s travel expenses.

The City Council historically has set the salary of the mayor, including for Slaughter and Bergeron, in its annual budgets. However, the audit says the council must pass a separate ordinance that directly states the mayor’s salary as required by a 2002 appellate court ruling, Legislative Auditor Daryl G. Purpera said in a news release.

The court ruling states that “at a bare minimum” a law setting the salary of an elected official must say that the salary is set at a fixed amount, but city officials could not provide the auditor with ordinances setting the mayor’s salary other than the budget ordinances.

As a result, the audit said, the salary of the mayor may not have been properly set by the council.

According to the audit report, although the budget for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, set the mayor’s salary at $65,000, Slaughter claimed the same salary as former Mayor Roger Bergeron received during the first six months of the fiscal year.

The city’s fiscal years do not coincide with the mayor and council members’ terms of office.

She wrote a memo to the city’s payroll clerk Jan. 2 directing that the mayoral salary be $84,960, the same amount approved for the previous mayor. The audit states that to expend more than the amount appropriated by the council for the mayor’s salary would require, at a minimum, a budget amendment.

The auditor recommended that the city amend the budget by a separate ordinance, setting the mayor’s salary based on what the 18th Judicial District Court rules.

“Basically, the city never passed an ordinance in regards to the mayor’s salary, so what I’m going to do is abide by the opinion of the city attorney and the legal cases that are out there, saying that my salary can’t be reduced,” Slaughter said Monday.

She said a discussion of cutting the next mayor’s salary was held “but a vote was never taken, and in all reality, the salary remains the same.”

The mayor said a court ruling is not necessary to resolve the issue and she will introduce an ordinance setting the salaries for the mayor, council members, police chief and other municipal officers.

Slaughter said Bergeron received the same car allowance, but the audit pointed out that the city’s present and previous budgets did not include additional funds for the payment of the car allowance.

Slaughter also said she was invited to Landrieu’s home and discussed the riverfront development with her. She disagreed with the auditor’s definition of an official meeting, saying “an official meeting is a meeting between officials” and does not always have to be in an office.

“In regards to the travel I took to Washington, D.C., I know that I’m on solid ground with that because I have attorney general’s opinions that I’m abiding by,” Slaughter said, referring to opinions issued in 1999 and 2003 regarding local officials in other parishes.

She said she will place the disputed money in an escrow account to allow the council to file suit to recover the money, but if no suit is filed within a year, she will withdraw the money.