Nungesser vetoes 20 percent pay cutAug 10th, 2010 | By Frank McCormack | Category: news
Council could consider override this week
In Plaquemines Parish, the council giveth and the council taketh away.
In its latest move to shake up the parish’s legal team, the Plaquemines Parish Council voted at its July 22 meeting to impose a 20 percent pay cut on the position of lead parish attorney. The salary reduction would drop the parish attorney’s base pay from about $125,000 to $100,000 per year.
The council voted 6-2 to issue the pay cut, with District 4 Councilman Stuart Guey and District 5 Councilman Anthony Buras voting against the measure. District 2 Council Keith Hinkley was absent.
The pay cut comes a year and a half after the council approved a raise for the position in late 2008 from about $70,000 to $125,000. Steve Braud was hired for the position in January 2009.
And in keeping with the back-and-forth battle between the parish council and administration, Parish President Billy Nungesser vetoed the measure last week. Nungesser said in his veto memo to the council that he believed the pay cut amounted to an attempt by the council to squeeze Braud out of the position.
Council Chairman Don Beshel said the council could attempt to override Nungesser’s veto this week during either a special called meeting or its regularly scheduled meeting Aug. 12.
Battle lines drawn
Before the votes were cast July 22, Guey said the pay cut was part of a larger rift between the council and the adminstration.
“One of the things I’ve noticed sitting on this council is that, when we come to these meetings, we pretty much have a battle line set,” Guey said. “We have an attorney on the throne back here behind us who, by the way, is not authorized by the charter. Then on [the other side] we have the administration and on that throne you have their attorneys – two today.”
Guey said, given the current “us-against-them” relationship between the administration and the council, he believes there ought to be equity in the attorneys’ pay. Considering the proposed pay cut, though, he said he finds very little of that.
According to the parish legal department, parish attorney salaries range from about $55,000 to near $90,000, based on experience. The lead parish attorney’s salary, before the pay cut, was just over $125,000 with an added $30,000 per year in benefits.
In contrast, the previous council attorney had a salary near $98,000, Guey said.
“And that’s making an assumption of 40 hours [per week],” he said.
Now, the current council attorney, Robert Barnett, is paid hourly at a rate of $175 per hour. Barnett’s responsibilities with the parish council have been steadily growing since.
Barnett was first hired in April 2009 to represent the council in its charter change dispute. Then, in June 2009, the council expanded Barnett’s duties to cover “such advices it deems necessary.” And when the previous council attorney, Amos Cormier III, was fired, the council made Barnett the official council attorney.
Based on a 40 hour work week, Barnett would make several times more than the lead parish attorney, Guey said. If Barnett worked a 40 hour work week, 50 weeks a year, his pay would approach $350,000. He, of course, has not billed the parish for near that much.
In fact, according to the finance department, Barnett billed the parish for a total of $46,319 for work in 2009, all in conjunction with the charter change case. Barnett has not yet sent the parish a bill for work done in 2010, though he regularly attends council meetings and has represented the council in at least one lawsuit.
Late last week, Barnett did not have immediate access to the number of hours he logs as council attorney and did not offer an estimate.
“It depends on the week,” he said.
With regard to Guey’s comments on his pay, Barnett added, “The representations by Dr. Guey are inaccurate.”
Still, if Barnett worked just 14 hours a week, for 50 weeks, his pay would surpass that of the lead parish attorney at the current salary. If the parish attorney’s salary is reduced to $100,000, Barnett would have to work just over 11 hours a week to surpass the parish attorney’s pay. As of Aug. 6, there was just over $192,000 in the council’s budget for professional services–legal, with an additional $50,000 in the professional services budget, according to the finance department.
“So it sets up an inequity,” Guey said. “Which set of attorneys has the biggest stick?”
In response, Beshel said he believes the council needs a personal attorney to carry out its business.
“If we want to live in a dictatorship – and that’s about what it is, and I hate to say that but that’s how I feel about it – if we want to live like that and just ask the administration what we can and can’t do all the time, it gets to be disgusting,” he said. “We need an attorney to back us up so that we can move forward on plenty things we want to do.”
Beshel then asked Barnett how other parishes handled legal matters.
“You cannot have one attorney representing two entities,” Barnett said. “That would be a horrible conflict of interest. You have to have two. I know of no parish or governing body that has just one.”
But Guey argued that the charter does not allow for the council to retain a general legal counsel. Guey pointed to Section 5.02 of the charter as evidence that all legal work is to be handled by the parish attorney. That section reads, “All legal services for the Parish, the Parish Council, the President, and all other political subdivisions and districts situated within the Parish … shall be performed by the Parish Attorney.”
With regard to the parish council retaining legal counsel, the charter reads, “The Parish Council may by majority vote of its membership employ special counsel for itself.”
“It’s just that the charter is very specific,” Guey said. “The parish attorney handles the parish business. If it’s wrong, do a charter amendment and put it in front of the people. … Let’s do something to change it instead of doing things that are in direct violation.”
Reasons for pay cut
The ordinance to cut the parish attorney’s pay offered no reason for the decrease other than to say “it is the wishes of the Council to decrease the Parish Attorney’s salary from $125,000 to $100,000.”
During the July 22 meeting, District 6 Councilman Burghart Turner said he’s always had a problem with the pay rate.
“They gave that position a $56,000 pay raise [in 2008],” Turner later said. “The pay has always been an issue for me.”
District 3 Councilman Jerry Hodnett, who said the charter is vague about how much time the parish attorney should log, said, “I thought it was too much for a part time position.”
Hodnett said the council is looking at Jefferson Parish’s job description for parish attorney to craft a better job description for Plaquemines Parish’s lead attorney. Even though he voted for the pay cut, Hodnett said he would support a full time parish attorney who would make $150,000 a year.
When later asked whether Braud puts in full time hours, Nungesser responded in the affirmative.
“For all the people in these departments, we take this as a job to do, and we put in the hours to do it,” he said. “I only ask people to do what I do myself.”
The pay cut issue is just the latest chapter in the dispute between the council and administration over legal counsel.
Though Braud began his work as lead parish attorney in January 2009, he was never formally confirmed via council resolution. Even though a majority of council members have stated they knew in late 2008 that Braud was the leading candidate for the position, the state’s legislative auditor has said the council, without passing a resolution, may not have properly approved his employment. A formal resolution to confirm Braud was considered July 8 but failed.
Since then Braud has remained a parish attorney, pending legal advice and an opinion from the Attorney General.