by Elliott Stonecipher
A lawsuit filed today in Louisiana First Judicial District Court in Shreveport asks a judge to “recognize and declare” that elected Caddo Parish Commissioners are prohibited from participation in “CPERS,” the Caddo Parish Employee Retirement System. The suit also seeks a judicial order for the return of all public funds, including cumulative legal interest, Commissioners have received over the years from participation in the retirement plan.
The lawsuit (here) pleads for a like declaration from the Court that no compensation to Caddo Parish Commissioners other than “their salary proper” is legal. The Commission has acted to award itself salary increases, life and health insurance benefits, and lucrative travel allowances in direct contradiction to provisions of the Home Rule Charter of Caddo Parish, the related legal research has determined.
The suit, a Petition for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, was prepared by Whitney Pesnell of the Pesnell Law Firm. I am Plaintiff, and named defendants are the Parish of Caddo, the Caddo Parish Commission, each of the twelve elected Commissioners, administrator Dr. Woody Wilson, and Finance Director Erica Bryant. Commissioner John Escude was serving as President of the Commission when, in March 2000, participation in CPERS by elected members was voted in.
My services, and those of the Pesnell Law Firm, are provided without any compensation of any kind, strictly in the public interest.
Commissioners in CPERS
As part-time elected officials, Caddo Commissioners are barred by the Louisiana Constitution from receipt of any retirement benefit, as detailed in Article X, Section 29.1. My research into CPERS membership by Caddo Commissioners was notably aided by government watchdog C.B. Forgotston and various state government retirement system specialists. I first wrote of our findings this past January.
In its February 5, 2015, regular meeting, Caddo Commissioners voted unanimously to hire Shreveport attorney Tom Arceneaux to file suit in an attempt to obtain judicial validation of Commissioner membership in CPERS (article here). Within a week, in a letter dated February 12, Louisiana Legislative Auditor (LLA) Daryl G. Purpera, officially notified Commission administrator Woody Wilson of his opinion that such CPERS membership by Commissioners “appears unconstitutional.”
Commissioner Salaries, Life and Health Insurance, and Travel Allowance
The Caddo Parish Commission attracted attention when, in 2013, it sought voter approval to expand the term limits of its elected members from three terms to five, four years each. (SEE article here.) The proposition, along with a property tax millage renewal, failed in an October 19, 2013, election, but Commissioners quickly rescheduled the millage renewal for a May 2014 second attempt, at an election cost of $145,000. In that retry, the renewal went down with a 77% “No” vote.
In research during this period, it was clear that the attempt to gain a possible 20-year “limit” of continuous service was tied to the fact that Caddo Commissioners had, over time, voted themselves unusually lucrative benefits. Included are salary increases without public debate or vote, unrestricted travel allowances to members of up to $15,000 per year, and, set for January 1, 2016, health insurance payments by taxpayers of 75% of total premium costs. (SEE another related article here.)
The subject lawsuit seeks to undo these actions and recover subject public funds based on the fact that the Home Rule Charter provides ” … that none of the Commissioners are now or have ever been entitled to receive any compensation, remuneration, or benefits other than their salary proper.”
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(Elliott Stonecipher is in no way affiliated with any political party. He has no client or other relationships which in any way influence his selections of subjects or the content of any article. His work is strictly in the public interest, with no compensation of any kind solicited or accepted. Appropriate credit to Mr. Stonecipher in the sharing – unedited only, please – of his work is appreciated.)