Marksville /Ward 2 judge files "open meetings" lawsuit

Claims mayor, city council illegally met to discuss City Court budget


{Editor’s Note: This article reports on the filing of a lawsuit. A lawsuit represents only one side of an issue in question and is not proof that the allegations made in the lawsuit are true.}
     Marksville’s mayor and City Council apparently met illegally prior to the June 10 council meeting in which Marksville City Court’s budget was dramatically reduced, a lawsuit filed by City Judge Angelo Piazza III alleges.
     The suit, filed in 12th Judicial District Court, is against the City of Marksville as a political subdivision of the state and against Mayor John Lemoine and Aldermen Mary Sampson, Clyde “Danny” Benson, Edward Conway and Frank Havard. Councilman Mike Gremillion is not named in the suit because he voted against the budget cuts.
     The suit asks for the court to provide relief through a “mandamus” -- court order to take the requested action -- and for “damages, attorney’s fees and court costs”  to be levied against the individual officials for their illegal acts, “omissions and malfeasance in office.”
Piazza states that he was re-elected and began a new four-year term of office Jan. 1 at a salary of $1,030.20 per month and also received retirement benefits, paid by the City of Marksville. He points out that state law says a judge’s salary and benefits cannot be decreased during his term of office.
Wrongful salary termination
     He said the actions of Lemoine and the four council members “resulted in the wrongful termination of the judge’s salary and benefits, all of which said impermissible and invalid acts were implemented by defendants, individually and collectively,  June 10, 2015 at a regular meeting, then denying plaintiff’s pay from the city for the month of July 2015 and continuing indefinitely.”
    The city and the Police Jury have both agreed to fully fund the City Court budget, with each paying half of the expenses, while a lawsuit related to the overall issue of the court’s funding makes its way through the state court system.
In this recent lawsuit, Piazza states that Lemoine proposed a budget for Marksville City Court June 10 for the budget year ending June 30, 2016. He said the only discussion was by the mayor, who “announced that he and the council defendants herein ‘had discussed’ the budget.”
    Piazza notes that a motion was made, seconded and approved with no further discussion. He said the result of the vote was “to defund the Marksville City Court, salary and benefits of the judge, all of which has resulted in damages and cost to the City Court and judge personally.”
    The suit alleges the mayor and council members “engaged in prohibited discussions and commitments related to the City Court budget and judge’s salary” prior to the June 10 meeting and that they committed to voting a certain way on the issue during that illegal meeting, “all of which is contrary to the law, particularly the open meeting provisions of law.”
    As evidence to support his allegations, Piazza notes that Lemoine admitted in the council meeting that he had discussed the City Court budget issue with council members previously, but “the details of the City Court budget and judge’s salary were not discussed in detail in any open meetings properly in the past.”
    He said approval with no discussion at the June 10 meeting, combined with Lemoine’s comment about previously discussing the issue with councilmen, “suggests that prior discussions and commitments were made by the prevailing majority.”
Piazza further alleged that Lemoine made “impromptu remarks at said meeting, relating to the budget and judge’s salary, with which all defendants were in silent total agreement and without any discussion.
“Intentional ploy”
    “This method is contrary to the open meeting laws,”  Piazza continued, “and constitutes an intentional ploy and disregard for the Open Meetings Law and required duties to pay the judge’s salary.”
    The suit contends Havard made comments to the City Court clerk earlier on the day of the meeting and “implied that the mayor and City Council had been discussing the City Court budget. He openly announced to the City Clerk of Court the intended and expected results, thereby indicating that surreptitious meetings and prior commitments of the majority of the council were made prior to the June 10, 2015 open meeting.”
    Piazza said the June 10 vote “deprived the judge of vested constitutional and property right related to his salary and, in the process, violated his rights under the Louisiana Constitution with the termination of his salary and benefits.”  
    The suit contends that “all defendants herein are guilty of malfeasance in office and intentional infliction of emotional stress and damages upon plaintiff herein, for which they should be made personally responsible without expense to the City of Marksville. Furthermore, defendants should have to pay for their own personal defense in the proceedings.”