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Third Circuit reverses St. Martinville charter ruling

St. Martinville City Hall
Posted at 10:03 AM, Mar 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-24 14:33:18-04

A Louisiana appeals court has reversed a lower court ruling about the veto power of the St. Martinville mayor.

In May 2021, a state district court judge decided that the mayor did not have veto power. The Third Circuit Court of Appeal decided this month that the mayor does have veto power.

At issue is whether or not the city's charter mentions the veto. In Louisiana, smaller municipalities - who don't have their own charter - are governed by the Lawrason Act, which lays out how the government will work. In general, it is a strong-mayor, weak-council model.

But St. Martinville adopted its own charter in 1898. In general, it is a strong-council, weak-mayor model. Charters are laws which set up the government of a city or parish. In Louisiana, there also is a law that says any issue that isn't addressed in a city's charter is decided by the Lawrason Act rules.

In 2020 the St. Martinville City Council passed an ordinance that would make the mayor's position part-time when the next mayoral term began. At a meeting, the current mayor informed the council that she had vetoed that ordinance. The council asked a judge to decide the issue.

The Council says that the mayor doesn't have veto power, because the city charter doesn't provide for that. The mayor says that, because the charter doesn't specifically state the mayor doesn't have veto power - the state law comes into play and the mayor does have veto power, because the Lawrason Act gives the mayor veto power.

The Third Circuit focused on the state law that applies the Lawrason Act to issues that a city's charter is "silent" on. At issue is what constitutes "silence."

The Appeals Court looked at the state law, which was passed in 2010, and concluded that the legislature intended to change things with that law.

"The construction of (the state law) shows the legislature intended to change the existing law and wanted to make it clear that it recognized the distinction between a charter being silent on an issue versus conflicting with the Lawrason Act," the appeals court ruling states. "Therefore, the legislature specifies that if the charter is silent, the Lawrason Act applies, but if the charter merely conflicts with the Act, the charter applies."

The appeals court also opines that the city's charter is silent on the issue of veto.

The court also reversed the state court's ruling assigning the costs of the matter to the mayor, instead ordered the bill be paid by the city.

We've reached out to the city's attorney to see if an appeal to the state Supreme Court is planned.

The city's attorney, Allen Durand, said he had not yet reviewed the Third Circuit opinion. He said he couldn't say for sure what his recommendation regarding an appeal would be until he does that.

Durand said the city has 30 days to request review by the state Supreme Court. He said that, on the side of recommending an appeal, there are the facts that the case has progressed so far, and the ruling might have wide-ranging impacts.

The mayor's attorney, John Milton of Lafayette, said the case boils down to the application of the state law. When that 2010 law amended the Lawrason Act, "one of the clauses held that the Lawrason Act should be used in times when the special legislative charter is silent. Because the charter is silent on the issue of veto power, our position is that the Lawrason Act provides for that veto power."

The Lawrason Act requires that the mayor notify the council of the veto in writing, which the mayor did back in 2020, Milton said.

See the full ruling below: