LHA trio dismissed again

by Leslie Turk

In a letter dated Nov. 19, City-Parish President Joey Durel again notified three Lafayette Housing Authority board members of their dismissal - this time for violating the state's open meetings law.

In a letter dated Nov. 19, City-Parish President Joey Durel again notified three Lafayette Housing Authority board members of their dismissal - this time for violating the state's open meetings law. Durel was unsuccessful in his August attempt to remove the members in the wake of a blistering audit of the LHA; the three members were reinstated by District Judge Ed Rubin after they appealed their removal.

On Monday, Durel told The Independent Weekly he does not know whether the dismissed board commissioners will again appeal to the City-Parish Council, which upheld their prior removal. They have 10 days to do so.

Durel, who has appointing authority over the board, on Friday removed the three board members, John Freeman, Joe Dennis and Leon Simmons (the resident representative), for neglect of duty and misconduct in office, specifically for he calls a series of violations of the state's open meetings law. The letter noted that the board members held an illegal executive session on Tuesday, Oct. 26, the day after Executive Director Walter Guillory and Deputy Director Jonathan Carmouche resigned.

While the board stated on its agenda for the meeting that it intended to go into executive session, writes Durel, it did not indicate the specific purpose for the executive session, which is required by law. Durel also claims that the board did not call a vote while in open session to go into executive session, failed to disclose the particular "personnel issues" it planned to discuss (the state's open meetings law allows for such sessions to discuss character, professional competence, etc. of a particular person) and failed to give 24-hour notice to the person or persons it would be discussing. The board also failed to vote to go back into open session, according to Durel's letter.

And while various media, including this newspaper, waited outside of the LHA's Section 8 office for about 30 minutes while the board was in "executive session," Dennis has insisted to Durel and The Daily Advertiser that no executive session was held that day. The minutes of the meeting, however, requested several times beginning more than a week ago by this newspaper, have Dennis stating, "We will go into executive session." As the media was leaving the room, LHA administrative assistant Danielle Carmouche, wife of former Deputy Director Jonathan Carmouche, advised the board that it must vote to go into executive session, the minutes (prepared by Danielle) read.

In contrast to Durel's position, the minutes further reflect that a motion to exit the session was made by Simmons and seconded by Freeman. "My question is, quite frankly, were the minutes doctored?" Durel asks.

When the media returned to the room, the board members confirmed they had gone into executive session to discuss giving Freeman the authority to sign checks. They also stated publicly that while they intended to discuss the employment of Guillory and his deputy director, there was no reason to do so because they had resigned.

City-Parish Attorney Pat Ottinger, who also was unable to obtain the official minutes from the LHA, had to independently verify, through local media records, what took place at the Oct. 26 meeting, Durel says. (The LHA still has not fulfilled The Independent Weekly's request for the minutes; state Rep. Rickey Hardy obtained them Friday and provided the paper with a copy.)

Reached on his cell phone Monday morning, commissioner John Freeman declined comment, referring questions to his Baton Rouge attorney, Ernest Johnson. Johnson did not immediately return a phone call for comment.

In an email to Durel Friday, Freeman offers to resign from the board immediately following the Nov. 30 board meeting if the LHA compensates him for the legal expenses he incurred fighting to get his board post back. "I cannot speak for Mr. Simmons but he shares my sentiment," Freeman wrote, citing Louisiana law that he contends makes the board members eligible to recoup their legal costs.

"There is no legal method, ability, for him to get his legal fees paid," Durel says, noting that the law Freeman references is designed to protect board members from lawsuits, not to reimburse them for filing lawsuits. "They sued as private citizens. They did it out of choice," he says.