Stutes takes wait-and-see approach, eyes council vote

by Walter Pierce

If the council approves the measure, Stutes will be back in court seeking to have the finalized ordinance set aside and preventing LCG from amending the budget to reflect the funding reduction to his office.

District Attorney Keith Stutes, trailed by Assistant District Attorney Daniel Landry, leaves the Lafayette Parish Courthouse Friday afternoon.
Photos by Wynce Nolley

District Attorney Keith Stutes agreed Friday to await the City-Parish Council’s vote Tuesday on an ordinance that would strip his office of nearly $681,000. If the council approves the measure Stutes will be back in court before Judge Dennis Waldron seeking to have the finalized ordinance set aside and preventing Lafayette Consolidated Government from amending the budget to reflect the funding reduction.

The district attorney had gone to court Friday morning with a goal of convincing Waldron — a retired New Orleans judge appointed by the state Supreme Court to preside over the case after judges in the 15th Judicial District recused themselves — to block the council in the first place from voting on the ordinance. But, after a more than two-hour conference in chambers with his team and with attorneys for LCG led by Steve Oates — essentially an executive session away from public view — it was announced that the matter will wait.

Following the court’s adjournment, Stutes said “an efficient handling of the court’s time would be to defer the matter,” but he declined comment beyond that.

On Friday following the court development the council added an executive session to the top of Tuesday's meeting. (Technically, it was added as a separate "special meeting" agenda.)

Steve Oates, lead counsel for LCG, enters the parish courthouse Friday morning.

Regardless of whether the council approves the ordinance, Stutes and LCG will be back in court on June 14. If the council approves the ordinance, the first order of business will be the district attorney seeking a mandamus to block enactment of the ordinance; if the ordinance fails it will be on to the crux of the case: deciding which interpretation of the Home Rule Charter is correct — Stutes’ or LCG’s. The former argues that LCG, irrespective of whether it’s parish funds or city of Lafayette funds or a combination of the two, is responsible for funding his office. LCG argues that only the parish side of city-parish government is responsible for funding parishwide obligations like DA, sheriff, the jail and the parish courthouse. Parish government, however, can’t pay its bills, hence the budget amendment ordinance on the council agenda Tuesday.

Because Stutes agreed to wait, on Tuesday the council will vote for final adoption on Ordinance 095, which notes that “Parish General Fund sales tax revenue is projected to fall short of the current budget by 32.6% ($2,055,207).” The ordinance amends the LCG budget by slashing “$575,144 in expenses currently budgeted in the District Attorney Division of the Criminal Court Fund and $105,743 in the District Attorney Division of the Parish General Fund.”

The preamble to the ordinance is a head-scratcher in that it plainly acknowledges that Stutes “notified the Lafayette City-Parish Council that he will no longer reimburse these expenses.”

In fact, Stutes informed the council soon after he was sworn in as DA in January of 2015 that he intended to stop paying the reimbursements to LCG, breaking with a long-standing custom of his predecessor, Mike Harson. And although Stutes paid the reimbursements in protest in 2015, he stopped making the payments this year — just three months into the fiscal year. Nonetheless, the previous council still approved a budget last August for the 2015-16 fiscal year that factored in Stutes making the nearly $700,000 in reimbursements, even though he had told the council the payments would stop. Stutes stopped making the payments as promised, the budget fell into imbalance, so the council will vote Tuesday to amend the budget to reflect that shortfall in revenue.

Arguably, the previous council — four seats on the nine-seat panel changed following last fall’s council election — failed in its duty by budgeting almost $700,000 in revenue it had already been informed would end.

For more on the underlying issues exposed in Stutes’ suit against LCG, read “Unintended Consequences” in the June issue of The Independent.