It took nearly a decade, more than $1 million in attorneys’ fees and countless hours of negotiations, but Lafayette Consolidated Government and firefighters and policemen have hammered out the final details of an agreement to settle the volatile and long-roiling lawsuit over back pay.
It’s about time.
City-Parish President Joey Durel has faced some significant challenges in his tenure since first being elected in 2003 — the fiber-to-the-home charge, the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive controversy, and the clumsy handling of the Redflex and SafeSpeed program come to mind — but the back-pay lawsuit has been his administration’s biggest albatross. Even though it was a parting gift bequeathed to him by predecessor Walter Comeaux, Durel ran his first election campaign on a pledge to resolve the dispute, and the lawsuit dragged on even as Durel was elected unopposed for a second term.
At its core, the unresolved lawsuit raised an ongoing moral and governmental question: how could LCG fund (insert project of your choice here) and not pay the men and women who protect Lafayette’s residents what they’re rightfully owed? It wasn’t quite that simple — The Independent’s Feb. 13 cover story “Still Smoldering” chronicled all the legal complexities and twists and turns of the lawsuit — but the endless delays only fueled public mistrust and the perception of an aloof, uncaring LCG.
So credit Durel with taking the bull by the horns and publicly announcing at his State-of-the-City-Parish Address earlier this year that he was enlisting the incoming city-parish council to help resolve the issue. Three months later, that initiative has paid off.
City officials have now reached a $7.5 million settlement agreement in the 9-year-old lawsuit over back wages owed to veteran police, firefighters and city marshals. It calls for a $2.2 million up-front payment from the city this year; the remainder, $883,333 a year, will be paid out over the next six years. Approximately 600 officers will be receiving rewards from the settlement, ranging from $60 to $30,000. The officers are due varying amounts depending on their salaries and seniority within the department at the time in question.
The settlement finally soothes much of the harm created from an antiquated pay plan adopted by the Kenny Bowen administration in 1978 — and corrected in 2001 — in an effort to boost recruitment and retain more officers. (A statute of limitations confines the amount of back pay the city owes to a period of about six years.) The old pay plan essentially advanced new officers their state supplemental pay, a monthly stipend of up to $300 that kicked in after a year on the job. Then, in year two, when state supplemental pay started, the city took away its advance, effectively keeping salaries at a flat rate. Courts ruled that the pay plan violated a state law protecting fire and police salaries from being reduced based on additional state supplemental pay. And that launched the subsequent dispute over the amount owed and how much interest, benefit payments and attorneys fees should be factored into any settlement. Fifteenth Judicial District Judge Ed Rubin was prepared to issue a ruling on the monetary amount last week but held off due to progress in settlement negotiations.
The $7.5 million figure agreed upon is exactly halfway between a $6.8 million offer made by the city last month, and the plaintiffs’ recent counter-offer of $8.2 million. LCG, its attorneys, the plaintiffs and the plaintiffs’ attorneys deserve praise for meeting squarely in the middle on the final agreement and not delaying a resolution any further.
Durel feels the settlement is fair to both the officers and city taxpayers. “Usually in a lawsuit you’re on one side or the other,” he says. “Here, we have a responsibility to the men and women who work for the government, but we also have an equally important responsibility to the taxpayers of Lafayette. We had to find that balance.”
The current city-parish council, with eight new members sworn into office this year, helped make the resolution possible. (All nine members of the council pledged during their election campaigns to resolve the suit.) That’s a sharp contrast to a majority of the previous council which had several public feuds with police and firefighters over salaries and other issues.
“There was a lot of history there and a lack of trust on both sides,” Durel told The Independent earlier this year. “Without a council vote, we could do nothing.”
Some political fallout from the settlement is expected come budget time. With the city responsible for a $2 million-plus payment this year and close to $1 million annually over the next six years, there are a number of projects and services that could find themselves on the chopping block — but the importance of fulfilling the city’s obligations to its police, firemen and marshals is long overdue.
Durel hopes the resolution will help the city further improve relations with its emergency personnel. “We’ve got many big issues to deal with in Lafayette,” Durel says. “The fire department has much more important things to worry about, the police have much more important things to worry about and so does the marshal’s office. But I think it was important for morale and was important for them to know that you had 10 elected officials that wanted to get this done.”
More precisely, the whole community wanted this resolved, and 10 elected officials finally answered the public’s wishes and got the job done.
MAY 20 This post by blogger CB Forgotston draws parallels between Gov. Bobby Jindal and two individuals he probably doesn't want to be aligned with: President Obama and former governor Edwin Edwards. CB says Jindal's trying to jack up the debt ceiling (an Obama play, according to CB) and buy votes from GOP leges who normally wouldn't go for that (an Edwards play, CB says).
MAY 20 Here's a post in the Baptist Message from an alumnus of Louisiana College. The author, Larry Burgess, calls on the leadership of the private school to take care of some pressing problems. Physical plant issues are critical and unaddressed, some faculty make so little they need government health care, and there is an atmosphere that does not encourage honest discussion, he writes. It's time to get things back in order, he says.
MAY 20 This post in Gambit tells of a benefit concert scheduled to raise money for the 19 people shot during a Mother's Day second line on Frenchmen Street in NOLA. Among them was Gambit blogger Deb Cotton, who spoke frequently about violence in the city and reported on the city's second line culture. Gambit's foundation, along with other NOLA non-profits, also is selling t-shirts to raise money for the victims.
MAY 20 Blogger Robert Mann is critical of the personal interest some legislators take in their work here, sharing the comments one NOLA solon made in explaining his decision to vote against a bill that would require people to stop discriminating against female workers. His wife might lose some salary, so he was going to have to vote against the equal pay bill, Conrad Appel said. Appel and everyone who heard him should have been ashamed, but they weren't, and that's what is wrong in that building, Mann argues.
MAY 20 American Press columnist Jim Beam writes about the budget again here, urging kudos for the House and its efforts to try to fix the budget as opposed to passing on a flawed and messy rubber-stamped document as it usually does. The Senate already is poo-pooing the effort, but instead Senators should be trying to find a way to improve it as well, Beam argues. He also has some predictions in here from LABI and CABL.
MAY 20 Here's a link to the photo gallery from Tulane's graduation this past weekend. Dr. John and Allen Toussaint played together and received honorary degrees. The Dalai Lama was so entranced by their performance he got up from his seat and walked across the stage to stand next to them. He even participated in a second line with his own personal, saffron-colored umbrella. To the graduates, he urged them to think about creating a peaceful, hopeful life and society.
MAY 20 This Picayune story questions the rhetoric of NOLA officials who say the city, aside from having a "murder problem," is safe. The talking points generally are that the criminals are killing each other, but everything else is OK. The police chief there says that even Lafayette is more dangerous than NOLA. But crime experts interviewed here say that NOLA's numbers indicate one of two things: either people are so used to violence they don't report it, or somebody's "fudging the numbers."
MAY 20 The Advocate's Mark Ballard writes about some of the background maneuvering that took place during the development of budget alternatives in the Legislature. From Rep. Joel Robideaux being called a "tax and spend liberal" to robo-call influence, Ballard lets us in on some of the work that happens behind the scenes but usually doesn't make it into the Advocate's daily coverage of the session.
David Calhoun and Elizabeth “EB” Brooks are the first two employees of Lafayette Central Park Inc., the nonprofit charged with turning Lafayette Consolidated Government’s 100-acre Johnston Street Horse Farm property into a passive public park. Calhoun was named executive director, and Brooks is director of planning and design.
Is it a crime for citizens to photograph, video, or take notes of a police officer in the line of duty, or a right protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? Locally, such activity, as witnessed recently, will at the very least result in a night spent behind bars.
There will soon be a whole lot of shakin’ going on at Benny’s Sportshack Supplement Depot, a new concept by Opelousas native Benny Nele. Located at 2002 Johnston St., the supplement shop, smoothie bar and café, featuring hot off the press paninis and wraps, plans to open in late May.