By: Delores Boudreaux
You promote your organization as a watch dog for good and transparent government. I request that you comment about the underhanded action of the City of Breaux Bridge on September 12, 2023. On that date the city amended its budget adopted months earlier to give the mayor and council members large pay raises. I have been told that the agenda for that meeting DID NOT state that the specific pay raises would be considered. The ordinance adopted for the pay raises was supposedly introduced on August 8, 2023 and was passed on September 12, 2023. The minutes from those meetings which are on the internet talks about a handout by the mayor and an exhibit which states the raises. But no exhibit are attached to the minutes and I am told not on the agendas for the meetings.
This in neither right and shows poor government practices intentionally to mislead the public. It cannot be legal. They ran for office knowing what the pay was and now gave themselves raises without the public being given due notice. If not illegal, it is certainly underhanded and deceitful.
I have been told the city attorney says the raises was [sic] legal. Supposedly, attorney general opinions say it is legal. But shouldn’t an outside lawyer comment on this. The circumstances here do not seem proper. Something is not right. Politics and corruption is a part of Breaux Bridge and no one seems to care.
Citizens want to know what’s going on in their local government
We received the above letter in the mail just after the Thanksgiving Holiday. We were already aware of many of the issues that Ms. Boudreaux addressed in her letter but had not yet published anything directly related to her concerns. Things like this occur every day, but people like Ms. Boudreaux bring them front and center. Information and leads of this sort are invaluable. While we aren’t able to hone in on the minutia of every single board, commission, or government body what we can do is provide our input and follow up on specific leads such as this one. Thank you, Ms. Boudreaux!
Open meetings violations
At the crux of Ms. Boudreaux’s complaint is what appears to be an open meetings violation. “I have been told that the agenda for that meeting DID NOT state that the specific pay raises would be considered.” Louisiana Revised Statute 42:19(A)(1)(b)(ii)(bb) provides:
“Each item on the agenda shall be listed separately and described with reasonable specificity.”
Interestingly this is right in line with an argument made by Citizens for a New Louisiana and other organizations recently. That was concerning the conduct of the Mayor and Board of Alderman for the City of Breaux Bridge. Our most recent complaint concerned the August 8, 2023, public meeting. The agenda for that meeting was posted on or about August 4, 2023, at 10:00/AM. Item 8 on the agenda read: “Executive session to discuss Police Department personnel matters. – Chief LeBlanc.” No further specificity was provided. Exactly who is the subject of the discussion? And what is the subject of the discussion? It is for disciplinary action? Demotion? Termination? The notice appears to lack the specificity required under the law to allow citizens proper notice. Further, the notice did not express the intent to move to an Executive Session, which is subject to a vote of 2/3 of the members. Rather, it specifies there will be an Executive Session. Apparently, Chief “Buz’d” LeBlanc can order the Council into Executive Session.
Then on or before August 8, 2023, at 9:00/AM the City of Breaux Bridge caused an amended agenda to be posted for the August 8, 2023, regular public meeting. This time Item 8 on that agenda read: “Executive session to discuss proposed disciplinary action against and/or professional competence and positions held of various personnel of Breaux Bridge Police Department. – Chief LeBlanc.” Again, no further specificity was provided. The public was deprived of the opportunity to even know which officers were the subject of the discussion. Interestingly, this occurred just one day before St. Martin Sheriff Beckett Breaux initiated an investigation into evidence handling procedures at the Breaux Bridge Police Department. That’s an issue we talked about previously in “What’s all the Buz About in Breaux Bridge?”
On the date in question, August 8, 2023, the City Council actually took up three separate matters in executive session. Each matter involved the discipline of three separate officers: Raiford Ballard, Ivan McIntrye, and Taylor Boutin. Each matter was also unrelated to the other. This is an ongoing issue as evidenced by the July 7, 2023, meeting notice. That included item 8 “Approve the recommendation of Chief LeBlanc to hire three patrol officers. – Chief LeBlanc.” On this date, officers Chloe Thibodeaux, Erik Ledoux, and Justin Gray were hired by the council.
This notice also was not reasonably clear to provide the public with sufficient notice of what subjects will be discussed. The public has a right to be reasonably informed of the identities of possible new hires in advance so that they may exercise their due diligence and provide public comment before a vote is taken. By withholding the names the public was deprived of that opportunity. At least one of the officers in question was allegedly formerly terminated from the Breaux Bridge Police Department for misconduct. Another one had a history of disciplinary issues with several other police departments in the Acadiana area. However, the public was unable to prepare and speak on the character of the individuals being hired to police their community, because the Chief “Buz’d” LeBlanc and/or the administration for the City of Breaux Bridge specifically withheld the names from the public.
Depriving the public of participation
According to LARS § 42:12(A), the Open Meetings Law should be construed liberally. This means that if there is a question as to the interpretation of a provision, the entity should provide as much access/openness as possible. If an executive session is to be held regarding strategy sessions, negotiations, litigation, etc. the notice should include specific information identifying the parties involved. It is also the opinion of the Office of the Louisiana Attorney General that the agenda must be reasonably clear to provide the public with sufficient notice of what subjects will be discussed [AG Op. No. 07-0181]. This is not occurring in Breaux Bridge. We have witnessed it and now other citizens are also taking notice.
Then on November 3, 2023, while researching discussions about police shortages at the October 31, 2023, meeting, we observed something else. The most recent meeting agenda available on the website was for the meeting two months earlier: August 6, 2023. Additionally, the most current meeting minutes available dated back to June 27, 2023.
Louisiana Revised Statute 42:19(A)(2) provides:
“Written public notice given by all public bodies, except the legislature and its committees and subcommittees, shall include, but need not be limited to:
…If the public body has a website, additionally by providing notice via the Internet on the website of the public body for no less than twenty-four hours, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays, immediately preceding the meeting.”
We pointed this out to the City of Breaux Bridge stating: “There seems to be a consistent pattern of Council agendas deliberately containing very vague statements of matters to be discussed, attempts to prevent the public from having sufficient notice so that they are reasonably aware of the topic(s) of discussion and so that they can exercise due diligence in advance of meetings in order to provide their elected representatives with information to make informed decisions and determine whether or not they should personally attend. Additionally, there is a general lack of transparency in failing to make minutes available to the public.”
Huge pay raises???
In response, we were offered an opportunity to visit with the government body representatives and inspect the records normally available on the website. We always welcome such hospitality and gladly accepted the offer. It just so happens that the records we inspected, which were missing from the Breaux Bridge website, overlapped with the time period that Ms. Boudreaux calls into question. Boudreaux, writing of actions of the City of Breaux Bridge, opined: “This [is] neither right and shows poor government practices intentionally to mislead the public.”
During our visit, we inspected Ordinance 2291 as it appears in a very impressive Wilson Jones Minute Book of government accountability. To some, a black, leather hardbound book with gold trim may lend an air of “officialness”. However, when one finds it filled with dirty tricks and subterfuge of this sort, it’s easy to come away with a different perspective.
Ordinance 2291 reads:
BE IT ORDAINED BY THE BOARD OF ALDERMEN OF THE CITY OF BREAUX BRIDGE, LOUISIANA, THAT THE MUNICIPAL BUDGET FOR FISCAL YEAR ENDING JUNE 30, 2024 BE AMENDED ACCORDING TO THE TERMS AND FIGURES CONTAINED IN THE ATTACHED EXHIBIT IDENTIFIED AS “EXHIBIT A”.
BE IT ORDAINED by the Board of Aldermen for the City of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana duly convened in session on September 12, 2023 that:
The Municipal Budget for Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 2024 be amended according to the terms and figures contained in the attached exhibit identified as “Exhibit A”.
BE IT FURTHER ORDAINED by the Board of Aldermen for the City of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, duly convened in session on the 12th day of September, 2023, that this ordinance shall become effective immediately upon signature of the Mayor.
“We have to pass the bill to find out what is in it.”
This is not much different than a move from the Nancy Pelosi playbook – ‘we have to pass the bill to find out what is in it.’ The only difference here is there is nothing more to read. At the time of inspection, the referenced “exhibit” did not exist. It was nowhere to be found in the ordinance book. So, at this time we are unable to determine if there were in fact sizable pay raises contained in the ordinance.
We requested a copy of the “exhibit” from the City Clerk. She initially provided three pages of documents, with the third page reading “continued”. When asked about the remaining pages she provided an additional ten pages. There are no budget increases contained in “Exhibit A” which was provided by the City Clerk and passed by the Board of Alderman.
Unapproved pay raises?
The budgeted salaries for the positions in question found in Exhibit A remain unchanged from the original budget:
Mayor – $67,500.00 [Item 402]
Board of Alderman – $51,000.00 (or $10,200.00 for each Alderman) [Item 403]
Chief of Police – $62,000.00 [Item 703]
City Clerk – $61,675.00 [Item 408]
As it pertains to the City Clerk, her actual budgeted salary was $57,000.00, but in discussion at the meeting, comment was made that her salary should have been $61,675.00 [Item 408] when they approved the budget back in June. So, Mayor Calais stated that he ‘went ahead and made that adjustment’ to take care of it. So he essentially changed her salary from what was adopted in the original budget to what he felt the appropriate number should be.
Remember the language of the Ordinance, “THE MUNICIPAL BUDGET FOR FISCAL YEAR ENDING JUNE 30, 2024 BE AMENDED ACCORDING TO THE TERMS AND FIGURES CONTAINED IN THE ATTACHED EXHIBIT IDENTIFIED AS “EXHIBIT A”.” However, according to Exhibit A provided by the City Clerk, there were no changes in the budget pertaining to salaries. Even more interesting is the fact that there was no official exhibit attached to the ordinance showing the actual changes. Someone could easily modify the contents of a document and pass it off as being “approved” (i.e. “Exhibit A”). Don’t be surprised if Exhibit A CHANGES AGAIN after this article’s publish date!
What is actually going on?
As it turns out, it doesn’t appear the Board of Alderman adopted an ordinance amending the budget at the September 12, 2023 meeting. The discussion at that meeting is quite interesting. There is a good bit of talk about the budget needing to be amended by ordinance and about handing out pay raises. Someone (“Sam” Melancon?) proposed putting an ordinance on the next meeting agenda specific to pay raises (so the public would have appropriate notice to participate). He was told, Shh! “We are about to have a public hearing to discuss a budget amendment, so we can just address it at that time.” You know, WITHOUT LETTING THE PUBLIC KNOW! Why does the public need to know we plan to provide a 7% pay increase to the Mayor, each year over the next three years? The compound interest on that works out to a 22.5% pay raise for the Mayor.
The Board of Alderman and Mayor engaged in several minutes of discussion regarding budget amendments. In addition to pay raises, they discussed $200,000 being allocated to a specific district for drainage, signage and infrastructure improvements, $10,000 being allocated for the summer recreation program, and various other items, NONE OF WHICH APPEAR ON EXHIBIT A.
After the discussion concluded there was NO CALL FOR PUBLIC COMMENT. The public hearing was closed. A motion was then made by Albert Menard, seconded by Eddy LeBlanc to change the budget “as stated in the discussion.” The motion to amend (the budget?) was unanimously passed, but there was NEVER ANY MOTION OR VOTE to approve the actual ordinance (Ordinance 2291).
They were correct when they discussed the necessity to amend the budget by ordinance. Still, they failed to ever present a motion to adopt Ordinance 2291 introduced at the August 8, 2023 meeting, for which a public hearing was held on September 12, 2023, whether as written or with amendments. They simply voted to approve what was discussed, not the actual budget instrument. For this stellar performance, they each received a pay raise!
Follow the money!
Although there was NO MENTION in the meeting notice of any pay raises and the ordinance adopted DID NOT actually provide for any increases in pay for any officials, the City of Breaux Bridge has already begun paying salary increases to the Mayor, members of the Board of Alderman, Chief of Police and City Clerk.
Starting in September of 2023 Mayor Calais began receiving a 7% salary increase or $72,225.00 annually versus $67,500.00 (not counting his $1,300.00 monthly expense allowance). Chief “Buz’d” LeBlanc began receiving a 3% salary increase or $63,860.00 annually versus $62,000.00. The Board of Alderman each began receiving a 30% increase or $1,100.00 per month compared to $850.00. Lastly, City Clerk Kristi LeBlanc began receiving a 10% salary increase or $62,792.60 versus $56,980.30.
If you don’t remember, it just a few years ago when we told you that the tax increases in the City of Breaux Bridge would result in pay increases for the elected officials. You all said it wasn’t true. Well, there you have it! And according to the Louisiana Constitution, the taxpayers are now on the hook for the increased salary rates for each of the elected officials for the duration of their terms in office. Period.
What about the rates established by ordinance?
Ms. Boudreaux also alleges that the pay for the elected officials is codified by ordinance and therefore an amendment would also be required to Ordinance Sections 2-33, 2-50, and 17-2.1. These amendments did not occur. The premise is that the officials for the City of Breaux Bridge were attempting to amend the budget by ordinance to allocate funds for pay raises. However, they never actually amend the ordinances that set the rates of pay! So, if these elected officials accepted any money in excess of what is allotted by the ordinance setting their pay they would be in violation of the law, correct?
Well, another concerned citizen recently warned about sacred cows. It just so happens this issue came before one of those sacred cows (one attired in a black robe) who didn’t agree with that argument. In the case of Despaux v. Town of Jean Lafitte the town ordinance set the salary of the Alderman, but increases had been adopted through a budget ordinance without actually changing the amounts codified in existing ordinances. The result – the Court concluded that since the increased amounts were subsequently approved through budget ordinances, they were valid.
The existing law was just a mere suggestion! Remember that defense next time you find yourself in trouble for a municipal ordinance violation. The Despaux case was decided in Jefferson Parish and the application for a Writ of Certiorari to the Fifth Circuit for review was denied. We are unaware of any controlling case law in this circuit.
So, while the law may be unsettled on this matter, the most important court, the Court of Public Opinion, has taken notice. What is clear is that officials for the City of Breaux Bridge are willing to engage in deceptive practices for their own personal benefit. They are willing to circulate vague public meeting agendas so that the public is not informed of the true nature of their intended actions. They are willing to conceal or otherwise make retrieval and access to public records difficult. This is why every municipality needs a Delores Boudreaux, a citizen keeping a watchful eye on local government and working to build a New Louisiana.