Louisiana town elects felon mayor, but can he take office?

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — When Louisiana voters enacted new restrictions on felons running for office, they inadvertently ensnared the small town of Ball in a new mayoral feud.

Democrat Roy Hebron overwhelmingly won the November election to lead the town of 4,000 in central Louisiana, ousting previous Republican Mayor Neil Kavanagh with 56 percent of the vote in a three-man race.

The problem for Hebron? Voters chose him as mayor on the same ballot that saw passage of a constitutional provision requiring felons to wait five years after serving their sentences before they can seek elective office.

And Hebron falls short in meeting that standard since he was under corrections supervision for a hurricane-related fraud conviction until 13 months ago.

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Now, the decision over who will be Ball’s mayor is tied up in court, with Kavanagh challenging whether Hebron can take the office.

Kavanagh, in court documents filed by his lawyer, argues he “is statutorily required to maintain that position until a lawful and qualified successor is inducted by law.”

A district judge agreed, stopping Hebron from moving into the mayor’s job this month and ordering Kavanagh to keep running things. Meanwhile, the town awaits a final court ruling to determine if the man voters selected will take the office — or if they’ll get a new election instead.

Hebron worked as mayor of Ball for 24 years, from 1987 until 2011, when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the federal government by overbilling FEMA thousands of dollars for the town’s disaster recovery efforts after Hurricane Gustav, according to court documents. As part of the plea agreement, Hebron agreed to resign. He spent more than three years in federal prison, the documents say, and his three-year term of supervised release ended in December 2017.

Kavanagh was elected mayor while Hebron was in prison, and he’s arguing that Hebron can’t take office now because he didn’t meet the five-year waiting period enacted by voters on the same ballot as the Ball mayor’s election.

Louisiana had a constitutional provision that barred felons from seeking office for 15 years after serving their sentences. The state Supreme Court overturned the provision in 2016 on a technicality, saying voters approved a version differing from the one that lawmakers passed. After a couple of years of debate over whether a prohibition should exist and how long it should last, lawmakers compromised last year on the five-year proposal.

Seventy-five percent of November voters agreed to enact that five-year restriction.

The two competing mayoral contenders are arguing over how — and when — to apply the new limit. Kavanagh argues the constitutional change took effect on Dec. 12, before Hebron was holding the elective office and, therefore, applies to him. Hebron argues the law on the books on the day of the election governs things, and the new restrictions shouldn’t affect his victory.

“He was qualified at the time under the previous law,” said Charles Elliott, Hebron’s lawyer. “At the time of the election, the new constitutional amendment wasn’t in effect.”

Hebron’s also questioning whether Kavanagh had the right to sue.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration and Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s office initially were at odds over how to handle the situation, whether the governor should issue the official legal commission for Hebron indicating the start of his term. Edwards’ office said it was required to issue the commission under the law.

But after a meeting Monday, both offices agreed the commission would be stalled amid the ongoing legal fight.

“They’re just going to let it play out in the courts,” said Edwards spokeswoman Christina Stephens.

Hebron is appealing the injunction against him. Ardoin spokesman Tyler Brey said if the ruling is upheld, a new election would have to be called for Ball to pick another mayor.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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