Council legal advisor gets cutMar 15th, 2011 | By Michelle Provencher | Category: news
At the Plaquemines Parish Council’s most recent six-hour-long meeting, one item led to a heated debate and a narrow vote: the decision to terminate the council’s legal advisor, Robert Barnett’s contract.
The vote was called after more than 40 minutes of discussion, and the resolution to end Barnett’s contract was passed, 5-4, with Council members PV Griffin, District 1, Kirk Lepine, District 3, Burghart Turner, District 6, and Marla Cooper, District 9, opposing.
Council Chairman Dr. Stuart Guey, District 4, introduced the legislation to part ways with Barnett months ago, and the item has been deferred from a vote at every prior meeting this year.
Turner said his opposition was drawn from the timing, as there are various litigations the council is currently embroiled in.
“The timing of this is very bad, being that we have pending legislation on the table as we speak, today, that Mr. Barnett is handling for us,” said Turner. “It is important that he be able to, at a minimum, complete those tasks.”
“I don’t think we should be sitting here without some kind of legal representation,” Cooper said in agreement.
Lepine followed suit with the District 6 and District 9 council members, and inquired about Barnett’s compensation; he said he has not been paid for his services since August 2010.
Grant Administrator for the parish, Benny Puckett, said he could not address the unpaid invoices; Puckett was answering on behalf of the administration as Parish President Billy Nungesser had left the council meeting by this point.
“I find this very disheartening that we have someone under contract with us; we’re not paying them, so we walk away saying, ‘you fire him, and we’ll pay him,’” said Turner. “That’s bad business. You get rid of him and we give him the money we already owe him. This is shameful. We should not be operating like this.”
Barnett said he has not been paid due to challenges made by the administration about his invoices, specifically, the subject of his conversations with council members.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with my invoices,” said Barnett. “I will not disclose what I talked about. I will not do that. That is a violation of my ethics… I work for the council, not for the administration.”
Cooper’s qualm was with the procedure, she said.
“We are his client, we appropriate money to pay his fees,” said Cooper. “Does the president have the authority to step over our own ordinance to screen or approve what our attorney does?”
Stephen Braud, the parish attorney, maintained that Nungesser asked for more clarification on the invoices – not that he entirely refused to pay – and had made several requests to Barnett’s law firm, Guste, Barnett, Schlesinger, Henderson and Alpaugh, to get further information.
“I have a commitment from Mr. Nungesser that these bills will be paid,” said Guey. “I will personally work to see that happen.”
Audrey Savant, a resident of the parish and administrative assistant to District 6, addressed the council and asked why Barnett was being fired. However, there was no verbal response from any of the nine council members.
Barnett was originally contracted about two years ago to defend the parish council in the lawsuit brought against them by the charter commission.
Guey said the council is granted the right to hire outside legal counsel for special incidents, but in the case of Barnett, it has “morphed into a general council attorney, of which there is no authorization in the parish charter.”
While Guey’s interpretation of the charter allows for one parish attorney for the administration and council to mutually call upon, Cooper said earlier on in the meeting that she will not be dependent on Braud.
“I’m not going to rely on the administration’s attorneys,” she said. “They lean toward the administration.”
Former Plaquemines Parish President Benny Rousselle stepped up to the podium to comment on the matter.
“You cannot serve two masters,” said Rousselle. “I hate to see you hang yourself out here to dry with no legal advice.”
Once the vote was taken and the resolution was approved, Barnett announced his worry for their pending legal cases.
“You’re putting me in a bind where I can’t represent you any longer,” said Barnett.
In response, the chairman called a 10-minute recess.
Throughout the duration of the council meeting, held March 10, a number of other issues of contention were brought to the forefront.
Councilman Griffin moved forward with an ordinance to rebuild the courthouse in the parish seat at Point-a-la-Hache. Despite having vocal support from several of the council members, the legislation failed, 4-5, with Griffin, Turner, Cooper and Councilman Byron Marinovich, District 8, in favor.
Marinovich pointed to the three parish-wide votes conducted that were in favor of rebuilding the courthouse in Point-a-la-Hache.
“I don’t know if this has to be done eight out of ten times,” said Marinovich. “This has been done at nauseam.”
The original courthouse was damaged by a man-made fire in 2002, then suffered a hard hit by Hurricanes Katrina in 2005.
Court cases and council meetings have since been operating out of a trailer on F. Edward Hebert Boulevard in Belle Chasse.
“The hurricanes did not hit Belle Chasse, but that does not mean the Emerald City is not immune from getting hit,” continued Marinovich. “Nobody should be rewarded for dragging their feet on this.”
Audience members argued that the courthouse should remain in Point-a-la-Hache to reduce the risk of transporting prisoners from the jail, located on the Eastbank, to the courthouse.
Guey and Councilman Keith Hinkley, District 2, said fiscal responsibility was the reason to hold off on paying to rebuild the courthouse.