The check stops here
|Power struggles and deep divisions in Livingston Parish mark President Layton Ricks' first year.|
The bright maroon and blue postcards that arrived in voters' mailboxes just weeks before the November 2011 election were certainly engaging to anyone who had grown weary of the stalemate in Livingston Parish government.
Under the heading, “IT'S TIME to Roll Up Our Sleeves and Get Some REAL WORK Done,” was an image of Layton Ricks—game face on, pushing up his left sleeve. The campaign piece outlined a simple but persuasive platform for his first 30 days in office: Get a handle on parish finances. Take politics out of engineering and architectural contracts. Establish a good working relationship with the Livingston Parish Council.
But on the second day he strode through the door as the new parish president, Ricks did something that was never touted on any pretty postcard: He promptly wrote a $453,000 check to his former employer—engineering firm Alvin Fairburn & Associates. It was an admittedly deliberate act done despite the fact no money was budgeted for it, designed to preempt the new council's plans to investigate whether the company might have overbilled. An independent consultant later suggested some of the charges might have been improper, and now the council is footing the bill to sue the company and collect.
Ricks then stopped payment on a $379,500 check to Corey Delahoussaye, a private contractor who had blown the whistle on alleged debris cleanup fraud. The parish president has thus far rebuffed the council's orders to pay that bill—minus $6,000 deemed questionable by an independent reviewer—and the parish is now being sued over nonpayment in federal court.
Beyond that, it would be five months before Ricks' administration could put together the first financial report detailing spending since he had taken office. In a single year, he went through two finance directors and three heads of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Then there was the embarrassing incident where his staff provided the wrong millage rates to the council, which subsequently adopted them.
In December, when the council unanimously voted in new procedures to better manage engineering and architecture contracts and tightened controls on spending in the 2013 budget, the parish president took the seemingly doomed step of vetoing both. The council voted—again, unanimously—to override him.
And now Ricks' executive assistant, former Livingston Parish Council Clerk Mary Kistler, reportedly is under investigation by the FBI and the Louisiana Inspector General's Office for allegedly hiring a technology firm to purge her government-owned computer.
Hardly a month went by in 2012 without some sort of headline-grabbing controversy or conflict in Livingston Parish government. Not exactly the first 30 days—or 365 days, for that matter—that Ricks had promised to voters.
“I don't think he's done a great job as parish president,” says Earl Price, a Livingston Parish businessman who has become known as something of a government watchdog and who openly opposed Ricks' candidacy. “I feel that he campaigned on a lot of promises that he failed to even try to meet.”
A PARISH DIVIDED
Livingston Parish is one of the fastest-growing parishes in Louisiana. It is, however, a community in transition—divided between newcomers and those whose roots span several generations; those who want progress, and those who long to preserve the closed, rural way of life. In some circles, it is still known as the Free State of Livingston.
Those power struggles routinely spill over into politics, particularly where big-money government contracts are involved. Ricks' election was largely engineered by his then-employer, Alvin Fairburn & Associates. The company was often at odds with former parish President Mike Grimmer over its role as a monitor in the Hurricane Gustav debris debacle, as well as a “clerical error” that resulted in overbilling on another project. Founded by a prominent old Livingston Parish family, AFA also had a sweetheart deal with parish government to exclusively handle engineering for any roadwork through 2021.
The company's intense campaign to propel its then-operations manager into the highest office in the parish aroused suspicions even before Ricks was elected. His first significant act as parish president—writing the firm a sizable check before the council could even convene—set the stage for the year that created an air of mistrust between the president and the council, which lingers even today.
Compounding the situation: The home rule charter form of government that replaced the old police jury system is but a teenager in this parish, put in force roughly 16 years ago. Clarity over the authority of the executive and legislative branches remains, at times, elusive.
Voters willing, Ricks already has his eye on a second term. Even so, looking back on his first year, he admits feeling some measure of disappointment.
“One of my goals was to unite the administration with the council,” he says. “We're about halfway there, or it has taken twice as long to get there as I had hoped. Some of it is my fault, some not, but I take responsibility for my end of it.”
The matter of the two checks remains front and center, given both are the subject of separate lawsuits—one of them in federal court.
Although the parish attorney is arguing in court the AFA payment was “inadvertent,” Ricks admits he knew paying his former employer would be troublesome. But he based his decision on two things: a resolution by the previous council—largely viewed as AFA supporters—insisting Grimmer pay the firm despite concerns over whether the bill was correct, and a subsequent ruling from a district judge that upheld the power of that resolution.
“The council right off the bat put it on the first agenda that basically would have stopped any payment,” he says. “So I said, 'Well, heck, I don't have any choice but to go ahead and pay the check.' So I did that and then went and met with a couple of the councilmen to tell them, 'This is what I've done, and this is why I did it,' so they would know. I felt that was only fair to them. I felt like everybody that had done the work and had proven they had done the work and needed to be paid. I still think at this point it was the right thing to do under the circumstances.”
As for the stopped payment to Delahoussaye, Ricks says he is awaiting the results of an audit on that one—something he wasn't willing to do in the case of AFA. “Until he goes through the audit process, I'm not going to write that check,” Ricks says. “But once he's done that, once he's cleared, or comes back and says, look, we know X amount of dollars may or may not have been overbilled, I'll write that check.”
Last fall, Ricks also found himself in a nasty public battle to renew a millage that normally would have passed in this parish with ease: a 5-mill road maintenance tax. The conflict again centered on a campaign promise Ricks made, this one to ensure the tax would be spent on nothing but overlaying and repairing parish roads.
The fund was and still is used to pay health insurance premiums for DPW employees, the argument being that they are the ones who maintain the roads. But for years, the parish generously has provided 100% benefits to workers and their family members, with no out-of-pocket expenses or contributions. Ricks reduced those benefits, but then gave pay raises to some workers to compensate. Even longtime advocates of the road tax campaigned hard against renewal of the millage, but in the end, 57% of voters passed it. Ricks insists that even with the pay raises, the parish still will see a 10% net savings—a first step.
“When he was campaigning, he constantly talked about getting the DPW out of the road fund,” Price says. “When he made those promises, I knew he couldn't keep them. The funds aren't there. He had to know that. If he didn't have advisers advising him that couldn't be achieved, then he shouldn't have even been running.”
Amid all the conflict, Ricks points to his accomplishments: In May, the parish will complete a master plan that began under his predecessor, and Ricks established a committee to tackle the issue of animal control, although progress is much slower than he had hoped. His administration has also secured state funding to replace several bridges.
“It's been a busy year, but at the same time I think a good start for us,” he says. “We've learned a lot, and I have a lot more to learn. I'm willing to learn.”
A NEW YEAR
Longtime parish Councilman Marshall Harris of Denham Springs, who is serving as chairman this year, acknowledges that the inexperience and antagonism between the largely freshman council and new parish president made for a rough start.
“I don't think the first six or eight months was productive at all,” he says. “It was very chaotic as far as trying to run parish government.”
But both Ricks and Harris say they are committed to improving relations, acknowledging that Livingston Parish has some very difficult growing pains to tackle: The need for improved connector roads, better drainage, a parish water and sewer system, and a comprehensive animal control program. Ricks adds to that his desires to create a uniform corridor through Livingston Parish along Interstate 12 and secure funding for a civic center.
But perhaps the quandary that looms largest is the $64 million Hurricane Gustav cleanup bill that thus far FEMA has refused to reimburse. At this point, the parish has no Plan B. Right now, Ricks is counting on a legislative change that would give aggrieved entities like Livingston the right to appeal to the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, of which FEMA is a part. The IG would send the appeal to an arbitration panel, if warranted.
“I'm going to try to bring us together this year, more so,” Harris says. “I think you're going to see more cooperation to get things done.”
Some say change is already evident—and badly needed.
“It's not as bad as it was eight months ago,” Price says. “I think all of them realize people do get tired of hearing about the bickering and the fighting. I think it still goes on, but maybe not as much in public. People want to see our parish president and our councilmen run this parish as a business, or at least equal to surrounding parishes. It needs to be run professionally. We need to clean up our image. People still say, 'Well, that's just politics as usual in Livingston Parish.' We need to change that.”
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