Concerns about who should pay approximately $1,300 in legal fees relating to Heflin Mayor Judy Tillman's suit to nullify a recall petition against her surfaced at the village's board of aldermen meeting recently.
"As a signer of the recall petition, I am very disappointed that the aldermen who are supposed to represent the citizens of Heflin have made a motion to pay the attorney fees for Mayor Tillman," Dean "Mrs. Dean" Nurhe said. "If we, the citizens brought forth the petition to remove Mayor Tillman with a recall, what makes the aldermen think that citizens would be willing to pay for her attorney?
"There are approximately 300 citizens in the Village of Heflin," she continued. "This is counting men, women and children. There were approximately 70 citizens who signed this petition ...Many think that Mayor Tillman approaches her position with an antagonistic attitude. In other words, 'her way or no way.'"
Alderman Robert Stachowicz said the decision to pay Tillman's fees had been made based on election cost information available at the time and that he stood by his decision because of problems with the recall petition.
"I can't speak for the other two aldermen," he said. "In my case, I looked at the petition. There were things on the petition that were not done correctly. The petition was not legal.
"If we had let the petition go through and there had been an election," Stachowicz continued, "The Village would have had to pay for the first election and then pay for the second which would have been a special election."
A successful recall election would have only vacated Tillman from office. According to state law, a second election would then have been held to fill the vacancy.
Tillman said at the time election fees would be $8,000 to $10,000 and presented payment of smaller legal fees as a way to avoid the larger election expense. Stachowicz and Alderman Todd Leake agreed and voted to pay.
At the meeting, that figure was challenged.
It was brought up by Alderwoman Cathy Lee, who abstained from the original vote to pay, that the maximum fee per election per district assessed by Secretary of State is $1,500.
According to Secretary of State spokesman Sailor Jackson, other locally-based fees apply as well – covering payments for election officials, voting machines, etc. However, an exact amount could not be determined as of print time.
Two other citizens also argued the appropriateness of paying Tillman's fees, but regardless of appropriateness, an attorney general's opinion states that the payment is legal.
"When a local public official is the subject of an action arising out of the performance of the official functions of his office, and the judgment or prosecution results in an acquittal or dismissal, the public official's legal fees may be paid or reimbursed from public funds," according to the Attorney General's opinion 10-0182, "provided the legal fees and expenses are reasonable and necessary. Our office has found that such a payment does not violate La. Const. art. VII, Sec. 14(A). See Atty. Gen. Op. Nos. 08-0319, 07-0045, 01-94, 99-180, 94-384, 87-699, 80-105."
The opinion goes on to state that mayor of a Lawrason Act village (as is Heflin) may not unilaterally pay such legal fees with public funds, but may do so if the board of alderman approves it by vote.
Ultimately, Alderwoman Cathy Lee moved to rescind the vote to pay the legal fees, but no second was asked for or given. It was then determined that the fee had already been paid.
Tillman's recall election, which would have been held December 8, was set in July by gubernatorial order after a recall petition was verified through Secretary of State's office.
She successfully sued in August to have the petition nullified.