May 16, 2017 10:48 AM

A bill by a north Louisiana legislator could affect Lafayette Fire Department seniority rules. The required public notice for the was paid for by the leader of the state's firefighters' association.

HB70 appears innocuous enough. The bill, which has passed the House and now awaits consideration by the Senate Committee on Local and Municipal Affairs, deals with fire and police seniority rules. But, there are some oddities about the way the bill has been handled that raise questions about the local bill designation and local notification rules that apply to those bills.

Rep. Dodie Horton of Haughton is the author of HB70. Haughton is a town in Bossier Parish. Her bill applied to fire department hiring practices in four communities — Baton Rouge, Bossier City, a fire district in Calcasieu Parish and Lafayette.

In a phone interview on Friday, Horton says the bill is designed to provide a level playing field to all new hires by fire departments in the four communities named in the bill. The bill amends current law to specify the communities by name. Current law defines the communities covered by the law through the use of a population range ("not less than two-hundred thousand persons and not more than two-hundred forty thousand persons"). According to Horton and to Candice Hatton, attorney for the Lafayette Fire and Police Civil Service Board, the current law applies to Lafayette so the naming of Lafayette does not affect any change.

"My husband is a retired fire captain with the Shreveport fire department," Horton says. "I introduced the bill at the request of Chad Major to clean up some arrangements in hiring regulations relating to people going to fire academy and the start of the work-test period."

Chad Major is the president of the Professional Fire Fighters Association of Louisiana. His LinkedIn account says that he is an "Assistant to the Fire Chief" for the Baton Rouge Fire Department.

In a separate Friday telephone conversation, Major says he contacted all of the affected fire departments before approaching Horton about introducing the bill.

"What the bill does is take away an unfair advantage of someone hired by a department who already might have a firefighter one certification," Major says. "Currently, if someone has that certification and they are hired, their work-test period starts while they are in the academy for training. Those without the certification only get it after completing the training, but every new hire in those departments is required to go through the training."

Major argues that by allowing those with the earlier certification to start the work-test period sooner than those without it, it provides a seniority edge for those with the certification even though they do not have any more time inside the department than those hired at the same time without the certification.

"This bill addresses that," Major says. "It's a good government bill."

Jason Boudreaux, chairman of the Lafayette Fire and Police Civil Service Board, agrees with Major that the bill was needed, even though he was not initially aware that Lafayette was affected by the bill.

"The way the law has been, giving preferential treatment to those with firefighter one certifications meant that it did not matter how good or bad they performed in our fire academy, those people came out jumping to the head of the class in starting their work-test period," Boudreaux says. He spoke with The Independent by phone on Tuesday morning. "It also gave them an unfair advantage on seniority that could affect them throughout their careers."

Local notice for the bill appeared in The Daily Advertiser.

"What this bill will do is put everyone on a level field," Boudreaux, who represents the Lafayette Fire Department on the board. "Now, performance in the academy will determine whose work-test period starts first and that will determine seniority."

In Boudreaux's view the bill will help Lafayette and other departments recruit and retain more minority fire department hires by putting all recruits on equal seniority footing.

"What you'll find is that many minority applicants don't have prior firefighting experience," Boudreaux explains. "This change would put them on equal footing with others in their recruitment class and position them to advance as their performance enables them."

Boudreaux says that he only became aware of Lafayette being included in the bill after being contacted by The Independent through the Fire and Police Civil Service Board office last week.

"I contacted Kurt Bourg, the head of the local firefighters union, and he was all apologetic, saying that he had gotten LFD Chief Robert Benoit's approval to support the bill, but had forgotten to contact us," Boudreaux explains.

Article 3, Section 13 of the Louisiana Constitution requires that local notices be published in communities that will be affected by bills that apply to local entities but not the entire state. Local notices were published in the four affected communities, but only one invoice for the notices identifies a payer. The bill information page of each local bill also includes copies of the public notices as well as the verification of publication. The bill information page for HB70 can be found here.

The Advertiser's invoice and verification notice for HB70 is the only one that identifies a payer. The payer is not identified as Chad Major or the Professional Fire Fighters Association of Louisiana. It is identified as "Baton Rouge Fire Department." The address listed is a residential address in Slaughter, which is in East Feliciana Parish.

Clerk of the House Albert "Butch" Speer tells The Independent that local bills need not be confined to a single locale and that it is permissible for third parties to pay for the required local legislation notices.

"It's a little unusual to have scattered locales like this included in a single bill, but if the notices were run in compliance with the constitutional provisions, then the bill is in proper order," Speer says.

Ironically, Boudreaux says that the current situation that HB70 seeks to remedy was created by another local bill where local notices were published but local governing bodies were not notified.

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