Marksville City Hall vs. Ward 2/City Court feud ends
Wed, 11/23/2016 - 05:00
City must pay $70,000 in attorney fees to Piazza's lawyers
Raymond L. Daye
After more than a year of bickering and bad blood, the fight over Ward 2/Marksville City Court funding is nearing its pre-ordained conclusion.
Ward/City Judge Angelo Piazza III told Marksville city officials in 2015 that the city’s attempt to cut the court’s operating budget would force him to file a lawsuit and the district court would find that the court would have to be fully funded.
He also predicted the city would be slapped with the requirement to pay all legal fees incurred if he had to file the suit.
Piazza went two for two in the prediction department.
The 12th Judicial District Court -- presided by appointed judge Harry Randow because the two sitting judges recused themselves -- ruled in Piazza’s favor.
It also ordered the City Council to pay approximately $70,000 in attorney’s fees to the lawyers Piazza hired to present the suit.
The Avoyelles Police Jury folded early in the poker game, saying it would agree to pay half of the Ward 2/Marksville City Court budget. Due to its early capitulation, it was excused from paying any share of legal costs associated with the suit.
Lemoine: no regrets
Mayor John Lemoine has not expressed any regrets that the city forced the issue to court -- even though Piazza told the mayor and council that Oakdale officials had argued the same case as Marksville some years ago, lost the case and had to pay significant legal costs.
Lemoine’s main Ward/City Court-related complaint now is the unfair division of fines and fees.
The Police Jury receives most of the fines and fees from the court even though the city pays half of the court’s operating costs. Lemoine would like to see that divided more fairly.
“It’s not fair that towns like Moreauville, Hessmer and Cottonport are getting more money from traffic tickets than Marksville,” Lemoine said. “The reason is, they don’t have a City Court. They have a magistrate or mayor’s court.”
The Ward 2/City Court was originally formed in the 1970s to combine the Ward 2 Justice of the Peace system with the Mayor’s Court of Marksville.
Lemoine said in a recent month the court ruled on 100 Marksville tickets “and the city got $25 out of those fines.”
The reason for the siphoning of fines to the Police Jury stems from the fact that the District Attorney’s Office decides whether to prosecute a City Court case as a violation of state law or as an infraction of a city ordinance. The Police Jury has instructed the DA to prosecute every case possible under the state law, leaving the city only the cases involving such ordinances as “saggy pants” and parking violations.
PJ not pleased
The Police Jury is not pleased with the City Court issue either. It would prefer a return to the “gentlemen’s agreement” whereby the parish paid the statutorily mandated minimum share of costs and the city paid the majority of the court’s operating expenses in exchange for receiving 100 percent of the fines collected. All parties to that agreement were always aware that the statute says the city and parish are supposed to pay equal shares of the costs, but there is a clause that allows bartering between the parties with mutual consent.
Even receiving most of the fines, the Police Jury is losing money on the court.
Jurors had expected to “lose” the few thousand dollars it was paying under the previous agreement, but thought it would at least break even on the extra share it was forced to pay when the city ended that agreement. That isn’t the case, prompting Police Jury President Charles Jones to bemoan recently that the jury “is bleeding money” over the City Court situation.
Piazza pointed out early in the dust-up that the court should not be required or expected to be a money-making arm of local government. It should only be expected to dispense justice and serve the public interest, regardless of the profit-loss margin of its operations, he said.
There may not be a rainbow at the end of the thunderstorm just yet.
Police Juror Henry Moreau has voiced his displeasure at the parish being required to pay anything toward what he says is a Marksville court. Moreau recently remarked that the district court may require the Police Jury to fund half of the Ward/City Court budget, but he “will go over that budget with a fine-toothed comb” to make sure the parish is not paying for anything it shouldn’t and insist that Piazza explain the need for the amount he requests in each line item of the budget.
The Police Jury’s budget year begins Jan. 1 while the Ward/City Court and City of Marksville budget year begins July 1.
That gives the public six months to enjoy any potential fiscal fireworks.