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Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Legislature could probably learn a thing or two about building budgetary surpluses from the St. Landry Parish Fire Protection District No. 2—except at least one St. Landry Parish citizens thinks the surplus may be the result of smoke and mirrors and a little voodoo tax millage assessment.

On the other hand, the State Ethics Board appears to be taking its cue from the Attorney General’s office in stonewalling tactics.

The district had a bank balance of more than three times its annual budget at the end of 2016, according to a state AUDIT of the its books. The audit showed nearly $8.4 million in the bank as of Dec. 31, 2016, after expenses of $2.6 million.

And a formal complaint made to the Louisiana State Board of Ethics last May against the district and its secretary-treasurer has produced only a letter of acknowledgement but no results after nine months.

Despite annual revenues of nearly $3.7 million for both 2015 and 2016, the district’s board seemingly felt it could not afford to hire a qualified employee to apply generally accepted accounting principles in recording the districts financial transactions or preparing its financial statements, the audit indicated.

“A material weakness is a deficiency, or combination of deficiencies, in internal control such that there is a reasonable possibility that a material misstatement of the entity’s financial statements will not be prevented, or detected and corrected on a timely basis,” the audit said. “we identified certain deficiencies in internal control that we consider to be material weaknesses.”

Nor did the board seem to feel it was in a position to hire additional firefighters in order to cut back on more expensive overtime pay. Board members paid themselves nearly $16,600 in 2016 and paid out $1.2 million in salaries. An additional $329,677 was paid in overtime (listed as “extra shifts and call out time”).

Auditors recommended that the board examine the following options and implement policies and procedures in order to reduce excessive payroll expenditures:

  • Establish set annual/monthly salaries for management-level positions in order to eliminate overtime paid;
  • Hire additional firefighters in order to decrease overtime pay;
  • Better utilize volunteer firefighters in an effort to minimize costs.

While Edwards and the legislature might be scratching their heads if they knew of the district’s fiscal wizardry, a closer look at a curious tax millage might clear things up.

It seems that district voters may have once approved a 17.5 mill property tax but the district somehow managed to collect two identical millages of 17.5 mills each until January 2018, when one of the assessments expired.

St. Landry Parish resident and local taxpayer Charles Jagneaux, who filed the complaint with the state ethics board, which has been basically toothless since it was gutted by Bobby Jindal in one of his first acts as governor in 2008, has a theory about that dual tax millage.

“My understanding is that the second millage was passed by calling it a renewal when in fact, it was a second identical millage,” he said. “The board attempted to put the expiring millage on the ballot (for a renewal) this year but the parish council would not let them since there was a multi-million-dollar surplus.”

The ethics complaint was filed against Johnny Ardoin, secretary-treasurer of the district’s board. Ardoin, it turns out, is also a member of the Port Barre TOWN COUNCIL, which would appear to be a case of dual office-holding, illegal under Louisiana law.

As a point of clarification from a reader who is in a position to know, dual office holding falls under (drum roll, please…) the attorney general’s office, not the ethics board so the ethics board would not address that matter,

A second, more serious ethics violation, however, seems to arise from Ardoin’s membership on the fire district board.

The Port Barre Town Council appoints two members of the fire district’s board of commissioners.

That would seem to constitute a built-in conflict of interest for Ardoin. Given his position as a member of the town council, he is in the unique position to appoint himself to the fire district’s board of commissioners.

That ethics complaint, like most complaints to the state ethics board these days, is in all likelihood, a dead-end street, particularly as it regards dual office-holding. But even in cases when ethics fines are assessed, which is seldom, they often are ignored and never collected, thanks again to Bobby Jindal and his ethics reform agenda.

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You have to give credit to Lake Charles attorney Ron Richard: he certainly knows how to milk a case for all it’s worth in order to keep the meter running.

It apparently wasn’t enough that his four SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) against Welsh Alderman Jacob Colby Perry were tossed by the presiding judge.

And no matter that a recall petition was initiated against Perry and that POSTCARDS were mailed to Welsh residents that DEPICTED Perry and fellow board of aldermen member Andrea King as “terrorists.”

And never mind that Mayor Carolyn Louviere desires to shut down a bar that just happens to be adjacent to a business owned by her son.

Now Richard, his four LAWSUITS against Perry—filed by him on behalf of the mayor, her son, her daughter, and Police Chief Marcus Crochet—having failed the smell test of 31st Judicial District Court Judge Steve Gunnel, who not only dismissed the four lawsuits aimed at silencing Perry’s criticism of Louviere’s administration but also awarded ATTORNEY FEES of $16,000 to Perry, is now challenging another RECALL PETITION, this one against his client, her honor the mayor.

So, it seems to boil down to the apparent belief that a recall against an alderman who seeks answers to budgetary questions is fine and dandy but to suggest a recall against the mayor who draws up that city budget constitutes a technical foul.

It’s all a sordid little mess punctuated by what appear to be excessive expenses of the police department, ($818,000 for nine months, form June 2016 through February 2017—for a town of 3,200 living, breathing souls), 18 police cars (again, for a town of 3,200), removal of Perry from the town’s Facebook page, and a mayor’s son (one of the four plaintiffs in lawsuits against Perry) who has a less than stellar past of his own.

Basically, with all that is going on there, it doesn’t really appear to be a town where most people would care to call home these days. That’s no dig on all the decent, minding-their-own-business residents living there, but a sorry commentary on the town’s leadership—if one wishes to be overly generous in calling it that.

Meanwhile, Richard manages to keep the meter running as the legal fees continue to mount for Madam Mayor. Of course, it has to be the client’s decision to retain him to pursue these objectives. He’s just a lawyer who ostensibly takes direction from his client. But often times, a client’s decision on a course of action is predicated upon the attorney’s advice, so in trying to determine who is actually calling the shots, we may just have the age-old chicken or egg question.

Still, it’s enough to make one wonder who is paying those legal bills: the client or the city?

Perhaps that’s another question for Mr. Perry to ask.

If he can get an answer, that is.

Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?

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By now, thanks to the Internet and network TV news, virtually everyone in the U.S.—and apparently some foreign countries—knows about the ham-handed manner in which the Vermilion Parish School Board shut down one of its teacher’s comments during a recent board meeting.

The manner in which Kaplan middle school English teacher Deyshia Hargrave’s was cut off from speaking and subsequently manhandled by a city marshal was carried out with all the tact, consideration, delicacy, and diplomacy of Donald Trump discussing immigrants from $*%#hole countries.

And the fact that the school board employed the CITY MARSHAL who was previously accused of using excessive force against a 62-year-old man in poor health to carry out the handcuffing and arrest of Hargrave certainly didn’t help matters in what overnight brought national and international negative attention to Louisiana.

And the announcement by the city prosecutor that Hargrave would not be prosecuted only enhances her chances of reaping a financial settlement subsequent to the lawsuit she is almost certain to file for her rude treatment and public humiliation.

To provide a little background for anyone who may not have heard, Hargrave was at the board meeting to protest a $30,000-per-year proposed salary increase for School Superintendent Jerome Puyal (from $110,190 to $140,188) while teachers, cafeteria workers and, support staff received no salary increases. School Board President Anthony Fontana, an Abbeville attorney who has been on the board about a quarter-of-a-century, promptly gaveled her into silence, proclaiming her comments were not germane to the board’s agenda.

One report had Fontana referring to Hargrave, parish’s 2015-2016 teacher of the year, as “the poor little lady” in an INTERVIEW subsequent to the meeting. That charitable reference is almost certain to absolve him of any culpability in what has become a public relations nightmare sufficiently grievous to attract the attention of the ACLU and teachers’ unions, not to mention network television news.

But that all could have been avoided had Fontana simply consulted in advance with the good folks at Gravity Drainage District 8 of Calcasieu Parish Ward 1. Not those folks know how to shut a dissident up quietly and efficiently.

The secret is to get an attorney who isn’t afraid to threaten the dissident and a judge who can ignore the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and issue an order that the dissident may not make public records requests nor have any contact with any members or employees of the gravity drainage district.

Or, better yet, have a gaggle of judges file suit against a newspaper to prevent it from seeking public records from the court.

Problem solved.

Never mind that the gravity drainage district hired with Billy Broussard to remove debris from drainage canals following Hurricane Rita under a FEMA contract and then instructed Broussard to remove older pre-storm debris and that he would be paid to do so.

But when FEMA said the older debris was not part of the project, the drainage district flat-out refused to pay Broussard about a million dollars that was due him for the work. Moreover, some of that older debris consisted of large cypress logs—still very much useful in construction—which mysteriously disappeared.

So, when Broussard attempted unsuccessfully to get reimbursed for his work, RUSSELL STUTES, Lake Charles attorney for the drainage district, wrote a testy letter to Broussard in which Stutes, elevating himself to judge status, threatened Broussard with jail time “the next time any Calcasieu Parish employee is contacted by you or any of your representatives with respect to the project…”

Stutes even filed a petition for injunctive relief to bar Broussard from contacting members or employees of the drainage district and from seeking public records. Incredibly, 14th Judicial District Judge David Ritchie signed the order for the INJUNCTION that bars Broussard from his constitutionally-guaranteed right to seek answers from a public body. That right is also guaranteed under Louisiana R.S. 42:4.1 et seq.

Likewise, the judges of the 4th JDC up in Monroe filed SUIT against the Ouachita Citizen newspaper in West Monroe in order to stymie the newspaper’s efforts to obtain public records from the court.

So, you see, Mr. Fontana, it really wasn’t necessary to shoot yourself in the foot by having the city marshal strongarm Ms. Hargrave, your defense that he was authorized to do so notwithstanding. That just brought unwanted attention to a board what was already contentious in its membership makeup—some of that disharmony stemming from the performance of the very superintendent to whom you trying to give an extra $30,000 per year.

All you had to do was have the board attorney (and you are an attorney yourself) to find a judge who would sign an order for injunctive relief which, while questionable in its legality, would nevertheless have shut Ms. Hargrave up.

For a minute, anyway, to borrow a phrase from Ron “Tater Salad” White, one of my favorite stand-up comics, which he tags at the end of this joke but which is deleted from this VIDEO.

 

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Oral arguments are scheduled to be heard on Nov. 7 in the First Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge on a three-year-old matter that a layman unfamiliar with the way in which judges can manipulate and interpret laws to keep the meter running would think should have been settled two years ago.

But settling cases quickly and decisively is not the way the courts work and because of that, the case involving the unconstitutional closure of Huey P. Long Medical Center (HPLMC) in Pineville in 2014 rocks on, continuing to rack up fees for contract attorneys for the state—all paid for thanks to the generosity of Louisiana taxpayers.

Meanwhile, the fate of some 570 employees has been held in abeyance since the hospital’s closure on June 30, 2014.

And the manner in which its closure was approved prompted the lawsuit by plaintiffs Edwin Ray Parker, Kenneth Brad Ott and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Here’s the way it all went down:

At 4:07 p.m. on April 1, 2014, a notice of the April 2 meeting at 9 a.m. of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee to consider Senate Concurrent Resolution (SCR) 48 which “Provides for legislative approval of and support to the Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University for the strategic collaboration with the state in creating a new model of health care delivery in the Alexandria and Pineville areas.”

A “new model of health care delivery” was a clever way of wording the SCR so as not to tip the hand of the Jindal administration’s intent to shutter the doors of HPLMC. Who could possibly be expected to discern from that goony-babble that in less than 24 hours, the decision would become final to close the facility?

There were only two key things wrong, either of which should have been sufficient grounds to stop closure of HPLMC.

First, the Senate’s own rules promulgated in accordance with the Louisiana Open Meetings Law LA 42:19(B), which says that notice of all such meetings must be posted no later than 1:00 p.m. the day prior to the meeting and if notice is posted after 1:00 p.m., the agenda item may not be heard the next day. (emphasis added)

Second, in a 1986 case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that:

A concurrent resolution…makes no binding policy; it is ‘a means of expressing fact, principles, opinions, and purposes of the two House (House of Representatives and Senate).” (emphasis added)

Attorney J. Arthur Smith, III of Baton Rouge argues that Article III, Paragraph 14 of the Louisiana Constitution provides that the style of a law “shall be ‘…enacted by the Legislature of Louisiana’” and Paragraph 15(A) which says rather bluntly, “The legislature shall enact no law except by a bill introduced during that session…” (emphasis added)

Smith said, “The Legislature cannot amend Louisiana statutes by resolution” because an enacting clause “distinguishes legislative action as law rather than a mere resolution” as held in First National Bank of Commerce, New Orleans v. J.R. Eaves in that “failure to include a significant portion of the enacting clause renders the law unconstitutional.”

To put all that in plain English, Smith is simply pointing out case precedents which hold that a concurrent resolution is not the same as a legislative bill and therefore, is not binding.

That’s pretty straightforward and something that a first-year law student should be able to comprehend.

Yet, when the state appealed the ruling of State Judge Pro-Tem Robert Downing of June 23, 2014, which granted plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction because the Senate committee violated the Open Meetings Law and provisions of Article III of the Louisiana Constitution, the First Circuit managed somehow to overlook the violations.

Instead, it ruled the state’s appeal as moot since HPLMC closed on June 30, 2014, seven days after Downing’s ruling and the First Circuit did so without even bothering to address the issues on which Downing’s ruling was based.

Moreover, the state appealed directly to the Louisiana Supreme Court on the basis of the declaration of the unconstitutionality of SCR 48. On Jan. 13, 2017, the Supreme Court denied the state’s appeal as moot but on Feb. 24 of this year, granted a rehearing to the First Circuit.

So now, a three-judge panel comprised of Judge John Michael Guidry, Judge John T. Pettigrew and Judge William J. Crain will hear arguments on the constitutionality of SCR 48 and of violations of the Open Meetings Law.

Interestingly, the state argues that notices to the public “need not contain anything other than a bill number” and that the Senate “has no obligation to inform the public of the nature or substance of the legislative proposals it will be considering.”

Now that’s a damned interesting concept. Who knew we, the public, had no right to be informed of what our elected representatives are up to? Who knew the people we elect and send to Baton Rouge have “no obligation” to let us know what they’re cooking up in the House that Huey built? Who knew the Bobby Jindal administration could push a concurrent resolution through the Senate and call it a law? Who knew such upright public servants as Jindal and members of the Senate committee would flim-flam us?

Louisiana R.S. 42:24 authorizes the courts to void “any action taken in violation” provided a lawsuit to void any action “must be commenced within 60 days of the action.”

The Baton Rouge firm of Taylor, Porter, Brooks & Phillips is representing the State in the HPLMC litigation.

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Only in Louisiana.

A lawsuit filed in 23rd Judicial District Court in Ascension Parish challenging the legality of the proposed approval of $450 million in industrial tax exemptions raises two immediate questions:

  • What are Projects Magnolia, Zinnia, Bagel and Sunflower/Sunflower Seed?
  • Why is the Ascension Parish Council being so secretive about the true identities?
  • Why did the Ascension Parish Council’s Finance Committee not follow the law in considering the proposed tax exemptions?
  • Most important of all, what is the Ascension Parish Council trying to hide?

These are all questions to which plaintiffs Dr. Henrynne Louden, George Armstrong and Lana Williams are seeking answers in their petition filed last Friday.

On Sept. 12, the council’s Finance Committee, which in truth is comprised of all 11 council members, met and added to its agenda for the full council meeting of Sept. 21 Item 7, calling for the consideration of “resolutions to award industrial tax exemption at levels recommended by the Ascension Economic Development board for the following projects:

  • Project Magnolia;
  • Project Zinnia;
  • Project Bagel;
  • Project Sunflower/Sunflower Seed.

Altogether, the four projects would cost Ascension Parish $55.6 million—for a grand total of 32 new jobs, or $1.7 million per job.

To see the lawsuit in its entirety, click HERE.

Ascension_code_names.PNG

“The identity of the projects on the agenda for the meeting of the council held on September 21, 2017, are fictitious,” the lawsuit says, adding that neither the plaintiffs “nor any other member of the public could determine, from a review of the consent agenda:

  • The identity of the company (or companies) seeking the benefit of an industrial tax exemption;
  • The amount of the exemption sought for each project;
  • The cost of granting each of the exemptions;
  • Whether any of the projects comply with requirements of the Louisiana State Constitution, or
  • Whether any of the projects comply with requirements of Executive Order Number JBE 2016-73.

“There are two things at issue in this suit,” said a spokesperson for an organization calling itself Together Louisiana: “Whether public subsidies can be approved by a public body without disclosing the identity of the entity receiving the subsidies, and whether reasonably specific public notices must be provided regarding approval of such subsidies.”

Article 7, Section 21(F) of the Louisiana State Constitution of 1974 spells out the requirements for approval of the ad valorem tax exemptions for new manufacturing facilities.

“After being elected,” the lawsuit says, Gov. John Bel Edwards determined that the Board of Commerce and Industry “…had approved industrial tax exemptions contracts ultimately resulting in an average of $1.4 billion in foregone ad valorem tax revenue each year for the next five years for parishes, municipalities, school districts and other political subdivisions of the state that directly provide law enforcement, water and sewage, infrastructure, and educational opportunities to Louisiana citizens.”

On Oct. 21, 2016, Gov. Edwards issued Executive Order Number JBE 2016-73 entitled “Amended and Restated Conditions for Participation in the Industrial Tax Exemption.”

The executive order requires that the governor and Board of Commerce and Industry be provided with a resolution adopted by, among others, “the relevant governing parish council, signifying, “whether it is in favor of the project,” the lawsuit says.

The executive order further says that contracts for industrial tax exemptions which do not include a resolution by the relevant local governing authority “will not be approved by the governor.”

The agenda for the Sept. 12 Finance Committee meeting, the plaintiffs say in their petition, “failed to indicate that (it) would be considering whether or not to approve a resolution signifying that the council was in favor of one or more industrial tax exemption.” Despite failing to include the item on its agenda, the Finance Committee did, in fact, recommend approval by the council of such a resolution, placing the committee, the lawsuit says, in violation of the state’s open meeting laws.

“Not only are meetings of the public bodies to be open,” the lawsuit says, (but) “citizens have the right to know—in advance—the subject matter upon which governing bodies will deliberate and vote.”

The state’s open meeting laws require posting written notices of the agenda of all meetings “no later than 24 hours, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays, before the meeting” and “shall include the agenda, date, time, and place of the meeting.”

The committee’s violation of the open meeting laws, the plaintiff say, deprived the public of the right to:

  • Know what was being considered by the Finance Committee;
  • Directly participate in the deliberations of the Finance Committee;
  • Protect themselves from secret decisions made without any opportunity for public input.

The lawsuit is asking the court to declare actions of both the Finance Committee and the full council void as provided by law.

The plaintiffs and their attorneys, Brian Blackwell and Charles Patin of Baton Rouge are, in all probability, correct in their interpretation of the state’s open meeting laws (Article XIL, Section 3 of the 1974 Louisiana State Constitution and Louisiana Revised Statute 42:19).

But this is Louisiana and it has been the experience of LouisianaVoice and other members of the media that the law is whatever some judge says it is. Judges apparently have wide discretion in concocting their own interpretations of the law to accommodate whomever the judges wish to accommodate—usually campaign donors.

The three plaintiffs in this case have the full moral support of LouisianaVoice but the reality is there is usually negligible correlation between law and justice once you walk through those courtroom doors.

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