3rd Circuit: Former Opelousas public works director should be reinstated

The appeals court ruled the city violated the state’s open meetings law when it dismissed Ronald Turner in 2011.

The former public works director for the city of Opelousas has been vindicated by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, which on Thursday released an opinion ruling that Ronald Turner should be reinstated with back pay following his January 2011 firing.

The case stems from the Jan. 11, 2011 board of aldermen meeting and agenda item No. 7: “Discussion regarding Mr. Ron Turner’s employment status.” Turner was at the meeting. Moments before the meeting was gaveled into session, No. 7 was removed from the agenda after Turner informed the city clerk that he hadn’t been notified that his employment status would be discussed. However, a later item on the agenda — No. 16: “Mayor’s Appointments for 2011” — included an organizational chart listing personnel then-Mayor Don Cravins had chosen as department heads and for other positions. Within those listings was an interim director of public works. The council approved the chart, effectively replacing Turner with an interim director. Turner, however, had left the meeting and was unaware that his employment status with the city had changed. He was informed the next day via a letter from Cravins.

Turner sued to have his employment reinstated. A trial commenced in August of 2012. District Judge Alonzo Harris ruled that the city had not violated the Lawrason Act, which governs how Louisiana municipalities operate. But Harris did rule that the city violated the state’s open meetings law, ordering the city to retroactively reinstate Turner, declare his termination void and to pay past due wages with legal interest, attorney fees and court costs.

The city appealed, but the three-judge 3rd Circuit panel sided with Judge Harris, saying in its Thursday opinion, “The City’s argument is without merit.”

Based on Opelousas Board of Aldermen minutes from 2011, it appears the canning of Turner had something to do with friction between Turner and Darryl Wagley, then the city’s projects coordinator, over hiring a manager for the city’s fleet of vehicles.

It’s unclear if the city plans to appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Current Opelousas Mayor Reginald Tatum, who was an alderman at the time of Turner’s dismissal before beating Cravins in the 2014 mayoral election, didn’t return a call seeking comment on the case. Turner’s attorney was unavailable Friday afternoon and the attorney for the city of Opelousas hasn’t returned a call seeking comment.