In The News › Jefferson Parish Charter Proposition 6 brings the Parish Attorney’s Office up to date

Jefferson Parish Charter Proposition 6 brings the Parish Attorney’s Office up to date

By Adriane Quinlan | The Times-Picayune

November 20, 2014

The Jefferson Parish Attorney’s Office has evolved over the past decade, emerging from the controversies of the Aaron Broussard administration to become a department that operates as the parish’s in-house law firm. Proposition 6, which will go before voters on Dec. 6, would enshrine changes to the office that have already evolved, including the broadening of the parish attorney’s duties and the inclusion of new qualifications for employees to prevent the type of abuses that had occurred under previous administrations.

The proposition is one of 11 proposed amendments to the parish’s charter on the ballot.

Supporters of Proposition 6 say the changes in it would allow the parish attorney’s office to evolve further. One change would allow the parish to recruit job candidates who are not residents of Jefferson Parish. Parish Attorney Deborah Foshee said the residency change could help grow the office. “As a practical matter, elimination of the residency requirement could result in additional applicants for the positions,” Foshee said.

The proposition would also write into the charter the broader scope of work that the attorney’s office has taken on under the administration of current Parish President John Young, when Foshee stepped in with the promise that she would reform the office to become a “top-notch law firm.” Under the authority of the Parish Council, the office has sought to expedite demolitions of blighted properties – a duty that would have otherwise fallen to the code enforcement department. The proposition would put that authority into the charter, allowing the office to “prosecute, defend, or intervene” in any legal matter under authority of the administration or the council.

But one measure to broaden the authority of parish officials may be more controversial. The proposition puts into writing that the Parish Council may hire outside legal counsel to represent it in “any special matter” or to represent “any special district” in “any special matter.”

To some, that was a matter of paperwork. Alan Gandolfi, the head of Budget and Research for the council, said the intention was to bring the charter in line with what the council had done under the administration of former Parish President Michael J. Yenni. “That did arise at least once in our recent history,” Gandolfi said. “Might as well spell it out.”

But a report by the Bureau of Governmental Research said the change could have wider repercussions. The report found that the language allowing the hiring of outside counsel “does not limit the council’s authority to situations where there is a demonstrated need.” The council would therefore have the authority to hire outside counsel for general matters, and bill the cost to taxpayers. “Allowing such hiring without a demonstrated need increases the risk of patronage and unnecessary expense for the parish,” the report said.

Parish Councilman Ben Zahn, a member of the committee that selects outside counsel to represent the parish in special cases, said he supported the measure. “I’m comfortable with the due diligence of the committee on this particular amendment, and in speaking with the legal community, I will support it,” Zahn said.

The proposition writes into the charter changes to the qualifications of employees of the parish attorney’s office, which have been designed to prevent past abuses. Broussard, the former parish president sent to jail for corruption, was found to have hired his then-wife to work in the attorney’s office on an inflated salary, and to have paid politically-connected individuals part-time salaries for paralegal work.

The proposition would require all employees in the department to work full-time and to meet a set of qualifications – two restrictions that have already been adopted by the office, Foshee said.

The proposition would also stipulate that employees of the parish attorney’s office are not under civil service protections, a change that will also occur if voters approve Proposition 5, which proposes changes to the parish’s civil service board. The change was proposed to clear up something of a muddle: the current charter lists parish attorneys, paralegals and legal clerks as unclassified workers, with other employees in the classified service. An opinion from the state Attorney General’s office interpreted the charter as making all employees other than clerical workers classified.

The change would not affect existing employees who work under civil service protections, under an ordinance adopted by the Parish Council on Jun. 25. However, the Bureau of Governmental Research questioned the change in its report on Proposition 5, and noted that if one proposition passes but the other fails, the parish will be left with a discrepancy in the charter.

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