By Carolyn Roy, News Editor
A district judge ruled against Parish Council candidate and plaintiff Alan McMurtry and in favor of Parish President Rick Nowlin and Parish Government during a hearing Tuesday morning in Tenth Judicial District Court. Bolin, of Winnfield, presided since the Tenth Judicial District judges were recused because Parish Government partially funds their offices. Judge Bruce Bolin said that while reasonable minds can differ, it was a moot point to seek injunctive relief related to two Parish Council emergency declarations since both had expired. He said he was not inclined to grant an injunction on future occurrences since a true emergency could occur.
Plaintiff attorney Geoffrey D. Westmoreland argued that Nowlin used two emergency declarations, issued in March and May, and changed line items in the highway budget to purchase road materials as a way to get around Parish Council approval. One invoice was for $11,025 and the other was for $9,991. Both have been paid. He cited an ordinance adopted in 2018 that was passed to require the Parish President to seek council approval for budget adjustments of more than 10 percent. “They were playing fast and loose with this rule,” Westmoreland said.
He argued that if the emergency declaration in May had not expired, money would still be spent without council approval. He said several times that the expenditures were not authorized. “These were not true emergency declarations. We want to stop them moving line items under the guise of emergency declarations,” Westmoreland said. “They used them as a guise to shift budget money and move money for line items.” Westmoreland entered three short videos of snippets from parish council meetings, about three minutes long, into evidence but they could not be viewed because there was not electronic equipment in the courtroom. Assistant District Attorney Stephen Mansour represented the Parish Council and entered documents prepared by Nowlin at the time the emergency declarations were issued.
They detailed reasons for declaring the emergencies, were in his president’s file and are considered public information. Mansour said that after McMurtry filed the suit seeking the restraining orders, he qualified as a candidate for a seat on the Parish Council. He said the suit appeared to be an attack on the public works director, John Richmond, who coincidentally, is a candidate for parish president, and the suit was another threat against the Parish alleging illegal purchase of road materials. Mansour said the Parish Council highway department budgets allows for line item purchases of Winn rock, a name commonly given to road materials. Winn rock is purchased from a plant in Winn Parish that frequently shuts down and cannot supply Natchitoches Parish. He said the Parish’s inability to buy road materials to maintain the roads would have been a danger to the public.
Mansour said the emergency declarations were necessary so the highway department could purchase maintenance materials through another source. Nowlin wanted to “piggy back” with the Sabine Parish Police Jury to purchase those materials since the usual vendor had shut down. Sabine Parish bought the materials through a public bid process and the practice of piggy-backing is a legal one. “Mr. Nowlin did emergency declarations. They were not an attempt to avoid the bid law but to piggy back from Sabine Parish,” Mansour said. Perhaps Mansour’s most important argument was that the purchases of the materials did not exceed the amounts that were budgeted. He cited a section of the Home Rule Charter that gives the parish president the authority to transfer appropriate amounts anytime during the fiscal year.
Those transfers do not require parish council approval since they were already budgeted. “He transferred funds in the budget to buy more materials. That’s all that happened,” Mansour said. Subsection E of the Home Rule Charter states: “The president may transfer any part or all of any unencumbered appropriation within programs or departments at any time during the fiscal year.” And while the Parish Council passed the ordinance stating there could not be a transfer exceeding 10 percent, it could not supersede the Parish President’s authority cited in the Home Rule Charter.
Changes in the charter can only be affected by a public vote. It is further clarified in the La. State Constitution. Article 6, Section 6 says that the legislature cannot enact a law to change or effect the distribution of powers of a local government operating under a home rule charter. Therefore, the Parish Council alone cannot change the charter. Westmoreland said in his rebuttal that politicalization of the issues was playing on fears. “He didn’t file (to run for office) until after the suit was filed.” He said McMurtry was on a Parish Council road committee and had been appointed by Nowlin.
After the summations, Bolin declared a recess and watched the videos submitted by Westmoreland before returning to give his opinion.
McMurtry said after the hearing that Mansour was mistaken when he said the suit was filed for political reasons. “I’m running for Parish Council, not against John Richmond. I’ll be pleased to work with him if we’re both elected.” Westmoreland said, “If a similar emergency declaration is issued on the same basis, we will be back in here again.”
Nowlin said, “In short, the judge said that he would not issue any injunctive relief at this time, i.e., the plaintiff’s request was denied. I have nothing else to add to the judge’s decision. “