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Opens Meetings lawsuit to end with Parish Council & President training through DA

LAPLACE — St. John Parish Council members, Parish President Natalie Robottom and administration officials are going to attend Open Meetings Law training conducted by the St. John Parish District Attorney’s Office next year.

That decision, which was passed in the form of a unanimous motion by attending Council members this week, brings to an end a controversy that swelled to public consciousness after a lawsuit last month from the D.A. accused Robottom and five Council members of holding a secret meeting outside of proper community purview.

District Attorney Bridget A. Dinvaut said she is satisfied with her fellow elected leaders’ decision to agree to training and would be filing a voluntary dismissal motion withdrawing her lawsuit.

Dinvaut said it is “extremely important” for elected officials to stay up-to-date on Open Meetings Law requirements.

“My office undergoes Open Meetings Law training every year so we can provide competent and qualified advice to the governmental entities that are subject to the Open Meetings Law,” she said. “It is extremely important to build public trust and transparency in conducting parish business.”

Attorney Carl Butler, who is representing Robottom and the named Parish Council members in the lawsuit, said the voluntary dismissal and agreement for training is a “fair resolution.”

Butler said Robottom and the Parish Council members maintain they did not violate the Open Meetings Law.

“Ultimately, everyone agreed that training is always a necessity,” Butler said. “It’s important everyone understand what the laws require and what the rules are. I don’t think that was ever a dispute.

“The lawsuit was really about whether or not the particular meeting that was at issue constituted a violation of that important law. The District Attorney’s office felt that it did violate the law, and we had a different position based on our understanding of the facts.”

Before this week’s agreement, Parish Council members and Robottom were asking the Court to deny all relief requested by the District Attorney’s lawsuit, dismiss all allegations and state the petition was frivolous.

The lawsuit alleges Robottom improperly called a gathering of Parish Council members Aug. 23 to discuss why the parish needed to engage the legal services of a construction lawyer.

Defendants named in the lawsuit include Robottom and Council members Larry Sorapuru, Thomas Malik, Lennix Madere Jr., Larry Snyder and Julia Remondet.

Butler said his office prepared a “fairly exhaustive response” on behalf of the Council and Robottom, noting the proceedings were on a fast track to a resolution, with 40th Judicial District Court Judge Sterling Snowdy setting a Nov. 27 hearing.

In the lawsuit, Dinvaut was seeking an injunction directing Robottom, Sorapuru, Malik, Madere, Snyder and Remondet strictly adhere to the Louisiana Constitution and Louisiana Open Meetings Law.

A civil judgment of $20 per defendant was also requested.

Accusation

At the center of concern for Dinvaut, according to documents, is an assertion that Robottom organized a meeting of Parish Council members “behind closed doors, hidden from public participation and scrutiny” to discuss costs and possible Council action to rescind an ordinance mandating increased legal representation by a construction attorney in all Parish business that demand such.

Dinvaut stresses her office is not at odds with the administration or Parish Council but is obligated to defend the state’s open meetings standard.

The issue took shape, according to Dinvaut, during the Aug. 14 Parish Council Finance Committee meeting, when Sorapuru broached the subject of a 2017 ordinance requiring St. John to engage the legal services of a construction attorney for all construction projects.

Just over a week later Dinvaut says a quorum of Council members — Sorapuru, Malik, Madere, Snyder and Remondet — as well as Robottom met. Assistant District Attorney Keith Green Jr. and law clerk Kennilyn Schmill participated by phone without being told who was in attendance.

There are nine elected St. John Parish Council members and when five or more gather for official business, it constitutes a quorum, meaning an official meeting is taking place.

Under state law, those meetings must follow certain guidelines, including prior advertising to the public via notice and agenda setting.

During interviews with meeting participants, the D.A.’s office says Sorapuru, Snyder and Malik each admitted knowing the meeting was taking place with a quorum of Council members present.

Defendants respond

The Butler Law Firm’s response says the District Attorney failed to enforce the provisions of the Open Meetings Law at the time and place of the alleged violation, despite the D.A.’s office calling for and organizing the “Construction Attorney Contract Meeting,” presided over by Green on Dinvaut’s behalf.

Simply alerting the meeting attendees of the alleged violation at that time and requesting one of the Council members leave the room would have fulfilled the D.A.’s enforcement obligation, the defendants say.

“At all times and for all purposes, the spirit and intent of the Open Meetings Law was followed and adhered to, and if any violation did occur, it was not intentional, nor done willingly or knowingly,” the defense states.

The defendants contend all statements attributed to them and contained in the lawsuit allegations were made to Green in his role as assistant to the legal advisor for the Parish Council and an existing attorney-client privilege was not waived.

The defendants want to strike any part of the petition that purports to summarize any alleged facts gleaned from the D.A.’s investigation, as those allegations contain “only out-of-context excerpts of privileged communications between an attorney and client.”

Robottom denied an allegation that she “advised” Council members of anything during the short period of time they were together that would have constituted a quorum.

The Council members also deny any of them admitted to a Louisiana Open Meetings Law violation.

The defendants’ response stresses Sorapuru left the meeting approximately five minutes after Remondet entered the meeting and when Sorapuru returned, the meeting had concluded.

“During the few minutes that both Defendants Sorapuru and Remondet were present at the meeting, the only issues discussed were the proposed location of the meeting and the reasons why no representative of the District Attorney appeared in person for their scheduled meeting.”

Snyder asserts that his privileged statements are taken out of context in the lawsuit and specifically denies the statement attributed to him that includes the insinuation that Robottom would intentionally violate the Open Meetings Law.

The defense says Robottom had no intent to secretly cause a quorum of Council members simply because she emailed a meeting invitation to three Council members.

Construction Contracts

Although no action was taken during the Aug. 23 gathering of Robottom and Parish Council members, participants expressed the focus was construction attorney fees and the ordinance mandating them.

The Council approved an ordinance June 13, 2017, authorizing a legal fee of 1 percent of the total construction cost or 1 percent of the total construction price, whichever is greater, included in all budgets for construction contracts to aid in the budgeting and provision of legal services.

The construction legal work is to be performed by a qualified attorney selected by the District Attorney.

Dinvaut has long championed this measure as a safeguard against unnecessary taxpayer spending when it comes to parish-led construction projects.

According to Dinvaut’s office, previous or ongoing projects like the new parish government complex, construction of recent fire stations and Woodland Drive water repair exposed residents to potential funding losses.