Several Parish Council members questioned who holds the power under the Home Rule Charter (HRC) at its meeting May 21. Chris Paige asked Parish President Rick Nowlin to address a recommendation from the DA regarding attorney fees for defenses against two lawsuits (approximately $27,000).
Rodney Bedgood received the letter Friday and gave everyone a copy before the meeting. However, Nowlin said he’d never seen it.
Paige said the HRC states the Parish President may not acquire debt without the Council’s approval.
“Normally debt refers to an obligation other than an ongoing operating expenditure,” said Nowlin. “Certainly the amounts we owe the law firm can be represented as obligations to the Parish. It’s one of those things that’s routinely covered in parish operations under state law and the HRC. Everything I did in this matter was done after consultation with the DA’s Office.”
Assistant DA Shantel Wempren stated the opinion references a budget for legal expenses approved by the Council already.
Paige asked, “When were we supposed to be informed as a Council? Are we not supposed to even know about the monies that are being spent? It (the information on expenditures) comes in a pile (of paperwork) that we have to search it out of. It appears that we know nothing of it until we ask.”
Nowlin said he doesn’t request the Council’s permission for many expenses during the year. The Parish has an operating budget and the Council members are supposed to educate themselves on what it allows Nowlin to do.
“We adopt a budget every year,” said Nowlin. “We don’t come back to the Council on every item to say ‘Can we spend this money?’ We don’t have that type of government. You can’t look at the Home Rule Charter in a vacuum. Sure, it’s our governing document. But you also have to consider relevant state statutes, opinions of the Attorney General and court precedents. Why does this item have to be submitted to the Council for approval if it’s permitted by law and there’s funds in the budget to do it.”
Doug de Graffenried said they shouldn’t get to vote on something like the legal expenses because it falls within the purview of Nowlin’s executive authority.
“When you adopt an operating budget there are places in it that give him discretion to spend money like this,” he said. Bedgood agreed. If it’s in the budget it’s allowable.
Paige tried to claim that they don’t even know it’s in the budget. However, Wempren said the budget is published annually and delivered to the Council over a month before it’s voted on. “You all receive that information. I can certify that it was timely and in compliance with the local government budget act,” she said.
“There’s a lot of things in the budget I don’t understand,” said Bedgood. The Parish Treasurer is available to answer any questions the Council members may have before the meeting so they can understand what they’ll be expected to vote on.
Nowlin said they need to be more upset with the people filing the lawsuit, which is costing the Parish money. The judge dismissed the lawsuit because it had no basis (brought against the Parish by the Natchitoches Voters and Civic League). “That’s what’s upsetting to me,” he said.
Rachal reminded them that the Home Rule Charter doesn’t supersede state law.
Hoover then motioned that they add an item to the agenda to request an opinion from the Attorney General on the matter. Rachal and de Graffenried voted no. However, to amend the agenda the vote has to be unanimous.
Council members vote on the budget, which includes attorney fees. Then some claim they don’t know anything about it. The question was raised, if they receive a copy of the budget to vote on, shouldn’t it be their jobs to read and understand what’s in that budget. Bedgood agreed.