HOUMA, La. — The Lafourche Parish president has sued the Parish Council over his salary.
Parish President Jimmy Cantrelle filed the lawsuit in Lafourche’s 17th Judicial District Court, claiming the council failed to pay his proper salary.
After Cantrelle’s salary, and a 29 percent raise, were discussed at the council meeting last month, Cantrelle filed the suit Monday, alleging the council wrongfully reduced his pay.
The suit claims the council wrongly interpreted the parish ordinance. Cantrelle is asking the court to rule on the proper interpretation.
The Lafourche District Attorney’s Office, the legal counsel for the parish, has received a copy of the lawsuit and is reviewing it, spokesman David Melancon said.
The district attorney can decline to represent the council and recommend hiring an outside lawyer.
Cantrelle is being represented by Stephen J. Haedicke, of New Orleans, one of the attorneys for the parish. The case is assigned to District Judge Christopher Boudreaux.
“I just filed suit because ... I’m tired of them using my salary as a political pinball,” Cantrelle said today, adding he never thought about consulting the attorney general rather than filing a lawsuit.
Cantrelle said the court was the right place to determine the meaning the ordinance. He also said the reduction violates a state law prohibiting the compensation of a local official being reduced during the current term of office.
Controversy over the parish president’s salary dates back to at least 2017 when the council voted to revise Ordinance 5444, making the parish president’s salary the average of the “base salary” of the sheriff, assessor and clerk of court.
The original ordinance, passed in 2014, left out the word “base.” The three salaries are set by state legislation but can increase each year depending on new certifications and state laws.
Some council members have said the parish president should not earn a salary bump for certifications earned by other officials.
The salaries range from $159,920 to $229,952, depending on the inclusion of benefits, expenses and other add-ons.
For the 2019 budget, the parish president’s salary was proposed by the administration at $160,536. After amendments, the enacted budget sets his salary at $113,100.
According to documents provided by the Human Resources Department, the 2019 salary proposal was based on clerk of court regular, supplemental and expense pay, $160,678; assessor base, certification, supplemental and expense salary, $158,746; and sheriff salary based on population, $160,337.
Together, those average $159,920.
Cantrelle’s salary for 2018 was $124,855.
End of term
According to the parish Home Rule Charter, the parish president’s salary can be changed by the council only during the preceding term and not during the final year of that term.
In 2014, the council voted to change the salary from $65,000 a year to the new formula. That change took effect with the term that began in 2016.
The revision passed in 2017 will take effect with the start of the 2020 term.
Cantrelle’s suit asks the court to solidify the correct interpretation of the 2014 ordinance for the remaining nine months of this term.
“The Parish Council has illegally reduced the Parish President’s pay during every year of President Cantrelle’s administration. This is part of a long history of dirty politics by the Gang of Bullies on the Council,” Cantrelle said in a statement Wednesday.
District Attorney Kristine Russell issued an opinion Wednesday stating Cantrelle’s salary was altered without permission from the council.
After the council’s legislative auditor, Reggie Bagala, presented a report at the Feb. 26 council meeting claiming Cantrelle was being paid more than the budgeted $113,1000, the matter was turned over to Russell’s office
The council amended the 2019 budget to reduce executive department salaries by $47,436. However, the amendment did not state which items would be reduced.
According to Russell’s opinion, the Finance Department is the one that decided to take the $47,436 out of the parish president’s salary.
“It was this enacted amount, $113,100 that the Parish President was paid beginning with the first pay period in January. Soon after, an order was given to adjust the salary amount within MUNIS (the parish’s accounting system) up to the proposed amount of $160,536 for the next pay period,” the opinion states.
Russell goes on to say that any changes in the accounting system must be approved by the person’s supervisor. As the parish president, Cantrelle is his own supervisor.
“The Parish President is the only person who could order a change in his salary amount within MUNIS. So, contrary to what the Parish President stated at the meeting on Tuesday, February 26, he would have had to have been aware of the change,” she said.
There was still an error in the salary, but it can only be corrected by the council, Russell said.
“The Parish President cannot unilaterally increase or decrease his salary amount in the enacted budget without an amendment brought before the Council,” the opinion states.
In last month’s report, Bagala said the parish risk manager, Brent Abadie, was also on track to receive a 40 percent raise by the end of the year.
According to the opinion, the increased hourly rate Abadie received for the two pay periods increased from $31.37 per hour to $44.17 per hour.
According to civil service guidelines, the risk manager’s pay range is $22.87 to $46.08 per hour.
Because Abadie’s salary falls within that range, council approval is not needed, the opinion states.