Praising a Settlement

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.