Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Chosen for his integrity and attention to detail, Lafayette City-Parish Attorney Pat Ottinger is leaving LCG after seven years of service marked by some major legal victories. By Walter Pierce
Photos by Robin May
When Pat Ottinger goes fly fishing in Texas’ Hill Country — the only pastime he says he is devoted to — he goes alone. A rod, a reel, the wind and the murmur of the Guadalupe River. The buttoned-down city-parish attorney says he goes alone because the fly fishing follows business trips to Houston. But the solitude along the Guadalupe’s limestone banks must serve as respite from the buzzing, whirring, ringing demands of being Lafayette Consolidated Government’s go-to legal guy who also operates a private practice and teaches law each fall at LSU’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center, where he obtained a juris doctor in 1974.
“The falls are pretty much a blur,” Ottinger admits. “Springs are a little lighter in that regard.”
When he’s not practicing law, teaching law or fly fishing, Ottinger is strictly a family man, spending time with his wife, Cheryl, and their children and grandson. (The Ottingers have a second grandchild on the way.)
In a few weeks, he’ll have more time for fish and family: On Dec. 27 Ottinger announced he will step down as LCG attorney effective Feb. 1. He has served in the post since 2004 — the year City-Parish President Joey Durel was sworn in for his first term — and at seven years he is the longest-serving city-parish attorney since the city and parish consolidated in 1996.
Last week Durel announced that longtime assistant city-parish attorney (and former city of Lafayette attorney) Mike Hebert, who has from time to time advised the council in Ottinger’s stead, will replace Ottinger, pending City-Parish Council approval Feb. 1.
“Pat has obviously been a tremendous asset to me because I didn’t know government and I didn’t know the law,” Durel says. “Coming in here from the private sector you tend to want to move quicker, you’re a little less patient; it helped to have somebody like Pat to say, ‘Joey, you can’t do it that way and here’s why.’ He knew the law well, and I’ve heard from a lot of the [LCG] directors how impressed they’ve been with Pat on the turnaround — when they ask for something, how quickly he gets it done. I can’t think of a negative moment that we’ve had with Pat and the legal department.”
Not everyone, however, is cut out for the gig — LCG has more than 2,000 employees, is sued on a routine basis for such things as traffic accidents involving public vehicles, and the rates government pays for legal services are significantly lower than what a good lawyer with major clients can make in the private sector. An average LCG case, Ottinger says, will pay about $125 per hour in legal fees — still nice work if you can get it — versus $200+/hour in private practice. Money is generally not a motivation for taking work with city-parish government, although Ottinger notes “there are a lot of lawyers out there looking for work, and not everyone has an existing client that would pay them $225 an hour.”
Regardless, the 64-year-old Ottinger, a Lafayette High and USL alumnus who he earned a mathematics degree in 1971, has managed to assemble a stable of about 40 to 50 lawyers willing to take on the myriad cases that arise in the operation of government. And he spreads the wealth, as it were, emphasizing demographic diversity among LCG lawyers; women and minorities get their share of cases.
Annexation lawsuit? Worker’s comp appeal? Land expropriation? There’s an att for that.
“I look for competent lawyers who have the respect of their peers and the judiciary,” Ottinger says.
He also requires attorneys who work with LCG to sign oaths of professionalism and to participate in the Lafayette Volunteer Lawyers Program, which gives poor families in the community access to pro bono legal services.
Ottinger’s altruism doesn’t stop there. Last year he created a program he dubbed L3 — Lafayette Lawyers for Lights. He asked attorneys who contract with LCG to donate, anonymously and voluntarily, the equivalent of one hourly rate to Lafayette Catholic Services Centers to help defray the cost of electricity bills for the impoverished during the summer. The effort raised $5,000. That’s a lot of kilowatt hours.
|The city-parish attorney huddles with Lafayette PoliceChief Jim Craft.|
During his seven years as city-parish attorney, Ottinger and his team have notched some major victories and helped resolve some festering issues for LCG. He counts among his biggest accomplishments successfully defending the issuance of bonds to fund what is now LUS Fiber — his replacement in waiting, Hebert, argued that case before the Louisiana Supreme Court — settling the long-pending supplemental pay issue stemming from a lawsuit filed against LCG by current and former police officers, and reducing the legal department’s budget while streamlining operations.
Along the way he has arguably become the person in the parish who is most familiar with, and best understands, the Lafayette Home Rule Charter — the constitution that governs LCG. At every council meeting and meeting of the Lafayette Charter Commission, which was created last summer and this spring will recommend changes to consolidated government, Ottinger is there, arms crossed, tranquil, with copy of the charter open before him — a legal bodhisattva with an Apple laptop.
As a private attorney, Pat Ottinger specializes in the oil and gas industry, hence the business trips to Houston. Governmental law was an exotic new world, but he embraced the challenge.
“What’s most impressive to me about Pat is that he learned this area of the law from scratch,” says Hebert. “It can be obscure and complicated and without much guidance, at least not as much as you’d have in other areas of the law, and I just think he’s done an excellent job of learning it and building the infrastructure around him to handle that kind of work — it’s just been very impressive to watch.”
“I think anytime you get into a new field there’s a learning curve, and I’m sure Pat experienced one,” observes longtime friend and fellow attorney Bill Stagg. “What makes Pat such a good city-parish attorney is he dives into things with real vigor. He’s not the kind of person who doesn’t like to know the answer to things. He spent lots and lots of hours doing his homework.”
Durel echoes that sentiment: “I’d say he was a little reluctant — this was a brand new thing for him. I don’t think Pat had ever served as an assistant city-parish attorney. I don’t think he had ever done any work for the city-parish government. If I remember right there was a little bit of ‘let me think about it’ and that sort of thing.”
As many NFL teams do with the college draft, Durel selected the best player available rather than the best player in governmental law. Ottinger’s reputation preceded him, and the selection paid off.
“I had never met him before in my life,” Durel recalls of his decision to offer Ottinger the job on the heels of his 2003 election as city-parish president. “I had put together a transition team of people who I trusted, had a lot of respect for and I knew would be helpful and ... the way it was put to me was, Pat was an attorney’s attorney. Quite frankly the words that I heard that rung the loudest to me were integrity and honesty. I just felt that in city-parish attorney, that position could help set the standard. We wanted to send a real strong signal.”
|Pat Ottinger exchanges small talk with former District 1 Councilman Purvis Morrison before the start of last Tuesday’s meeting.|
Ottinger sent that signal soon after taking the post by rolling up his sleeves, taking a managerial look at the department and cutting the waste, duplication and what some in the Lafayette legal community have characterized as political patronage long associated with Lafayette government’s legal department. In his first year on the job, Ottinger reduced the department’s budget by roughly a third — from $502,000 the year before to $358,000 his first year on the job. The good counselor has managed to keep the department’s budget below that $500K level ever since, even during the litigation-intense year of 2005 when LCG ran a legal gauntlet all the way to the state Supreme Court defending LUS’ fiber to the home bond initiative.
“I’ll give you an example,” Ottinger says during a recent interview. “When I came in and did an inventory of matters that were then pending, I found that there were lawyers in Baton Rouge who had been selected to do work that could have been done in Lafayette. I didn’t think it made any sense to spend LCG dollars to pay a lawyer in Baton Rouge to do a job that could have been done by someone in Lafayette.
“I don’t want to speculate on the motivation as to why those [Baton Rouge lawyers] were chosen, but I had the idea that it could have been done in Lafayette, so I terminated those relationships and moved those files back to Lafayette.”
Ottinger brought a business-like, straight-laced approach to the job. But friends and admirers say away from work he can be a classic cut-up.
Count Durel among the admirers. “When he lets his hair down he is a witty, witty guy,” says the c-p president. “And I got to tell you, that is one of the reasons I enjoy this job so much; I feel like I’ve got a good, good group of people around me — and Pat was one of them — who have some balance in their lives. We’re very serious when we need to be serious, but we laugh a lot too up here.”
Adds best bud Stagg: “When Pat likes something and enjoys something he puts his heart and soul into it, and I think that’s what he did as city-parish attorney.”
FIVE QUESTIONS FOR PAT OTTINGER
What are the challenges to being a government attorney?
A government is a very unique client — there are a lot of moving parts to it: 2,500 employees, Lafayette’s a very vibrant city, a lot of things going on, progressive. But when the phone rings you never know what it’s going to be. That’s why I say it’s daunting. You literally can go from the mundane to the monumental, and you really have very little control over what’s being brought to you. And now that I’ve done that for seven years I think it’s time for a younger face to be on the scene. Seven years is, for the nature of the job, a long time, and I probably don’t have the vigor that I did seven years ago.
How many hours would you say you work in a week as LCG’s attorney?
I would answer you, not in terms of hours, but probably 60, 65 percent of my time is dealing with LCG matters.
What are your criteria for selecting an attorney to work with LCG?
I believe I went through a thoughtful process to identify a diverse group of lawyers who are willing to do work for the government on less than the market rate — government rates don’t quite match that of the private sector. I required contracts from each lawyer — I don’t know if that was done before — but I did require contracts. I required budgets for matters that certainly involved litigation. I approved all bills, and tried to send a signal early on that I did approve the bills and this wasn’t just a rubber-stamping process. I also try to use women, minorities — spread the work throughout the community, so to speak.
What is the motivation for attorneys to work for LCG considering they can make more money in private practice?
There are several answers. One is, there are a lot of lawyers out there looking for work, and not everyone has an existing client that would pay them $225 an hour. Others like the prestige of representing the government and whatever that carries with it. In rare instances has someone been unwilling to go to work at reduced rates. There’s just a lot of lawyers out there.
Is there an element of public service in accepting the post as chief lawyer for the government?
I’ll put it this way: I don’t want to overstate it, like I’m this great thing because I did this. But I am old fashioned enough to think that when the mayor calls or your government calls you respond. And no one forced me to do it seven years ago. I actually think it’s a corny statement — “give back to the community” — but there might be some truth to that. When the mayor asks you to do something, I think it’s worthy of your attention and respect, and I chose to do it and here we are.