If former Sterlington Mayor Vern Breland enticed a local business with the promise of free sewer lines in exchange for being annexed into the town, he did so illegally, a Sterlington official says.
Sterlington Town Councilman Matt Talbert made that argument Tuesday during the Town Council’s regular meeting when the body took up a request from a local business owner who wanted to de-annex from the town.
According to Talbert, Breland could not make such a pledge, legally. Under the state Lawrason Act, the mayor cannot spend public funds without the Town Council’s express or implicit authorization.
“He can promise, but it would be illegal for him to do that without a vote of the council,” Talbert said.
The de-annexation request was submitted by Kitty Aulakh, of Monroe, who owns the Super Mart across from Johnny’s Pizza House on U.S. Hwy 165. Monroe attorney Charlie Heck, who represents Aulakh’s business, said Breland approached his client in April 2011 about annexing some of her property in exchange for “access to sewer system at no cost,” including the construction of a new sewer line.
“After the annexation, the sewer line was never put in, and she felt completely misled,” Heck said. “This is what the prior administration did. As the current administration, you inherited it. You have to fix it.”
Caesar Velasquez, who previously served on the Town Council, is now mayor in Sterlington.
Breland left office in late 2018 after financial audits and news reports published by this newspaper shed light on several financial irregularities at the town. In August, a Ouachita Parish grand jury indicted Breland for malfeasance in office. Under Breland, Sterlington accumulated some $20 million in bonded indebtedness and spent some $3 million on unlawful expenditures, skirted public bid law on projects as large as $2 million and falsified documents it sent to the state so it could incur bonded indebtedness.
Heck implored the Town Council to either approve his client’s request to de-annex or face a lawsuit to enforce the terms of Breland’s verbal pledge.
“Allow this poor woman to get out and see what happens,” Heck said. “The other option is to file a lawsuit.”
According to Heck, his client has spent at least $30,000 on sewage system work for her business.
“The agreement was breached,” Heck said. “I think everybody here knows that.”
Talbert held up a petition for annexation submitted by Aulakh some 10 years ago that listed only one condition or contingency: that the town allow liquor sales on Sunday. If installing sewer lines at no cost was a condition of Aulakh’s original agreement with Breland, why did she leave that condition out of the annexation petition she submitted to the town, Talbert said.
“We only put one contingency in,” said Talbert, offering to provide Heck and Aulakh with an extra copy of the petition.
Monroe attorney Devin Jones, who serves as Sterlington’s legal counsel, pointed out the annexation petition was a voluntary petition.
“That was the actual petition, and that was the only condition that existed on the face of the petition,” Jones said. “It’s clear from the four corners of the document what the conditions are.”
Heck disputed Talbert’s argument, referring to witnesses who could verify Breland’s verbal agreement with Aulakh.
“That just means it isn’t in the document,” Heck said. “That doesn’t mean it (the agreement) didn’t exist.”
Talbert noted Breland could not legally offer such a pledge without the Town Council’s approval.
“A document is binding,” he said.
According to Heck, two people could testify in support of his client’s claim that Breland verbally pledged to provide sewer connections at no cost: Sterlington Police Chief Barry Bonner and former Town Council member Lucy Holtzclaw.
Bonner and Holtzclaw confirmed they each heard Breland discuss his pledge to provide sewer connections to Aulakh at no cost in exchange for annexation.
“I remember talking to Vern, and he told me that part of her agreeing to come in was getting sewer,” Bonner said. “It was straight from Vern. But Vern did indicate to me that her coming in to the city was getting sewer.”
Holtzclaw said she remembered Breland speaking about the agreement in front of her and Velasquez, too.
Directing her remarks to Velasquez, Holtzclaw said, “During the time that we did serve, we were in a meeting, I know it’s been eight years, but he did say it to Ms. Kitty, that we would put in the sewer.”
“He said it,” Holtzclaw said. “But he did verbally say it to her. We were both in there when he said it.”
After Breland’s sudden exit, Velasquez and Holtzclaw campaigned for mayor. Velasquez cinched election by 16 votes.
Velasquez did not respond to Holtzclaw’s comments or claims but echoed Talbert’s points about the legality of Breland’s alleged pledge.
“One of the things I question is the validity of the mayor saying it wasn’t going to cost you anything without bringing it to the board,” Velasquez.
Velasquez also suggested Aulakh’s concerns about her sewer system did not become an issue until she had to spend a few thousand dollars in repairs.
“I got brought into the situation when your lift station went out and you were upset about spending $3,500 to repair the lift station,” Velasquez said.
Jones also questioned Aulakh’s timing.
“She waited 10 years after the annexation and three years after the former mayor left to bring up this issue,” he said.
According to Aulakh, she had urged town officials to fulfill the agreement for a long time.
Talbert offered the motion to deny her de-annexation request. Town Council member Zack Howse seconded the motion.
Aulakh’s Super Mart and other businesses generate a large amount of sales tax revenues for Sterlington.
Prior to the vote, Aulakh indicated she would try to de-annex all her properties and businesses.
“You guys know I own more businesses in Sterlington,” Aulakh said. “If lawsuit goes on, I will try to pull all of them.”
“Yeah, my motion stands to deny,” said Talbert in reply.
Talbert’s motion to deny her request failed on a 2-1-1 vote with Howse and Talbert voting to deny the request. Town Council member Ron Hill voted against Talbert’s motion and Town Council member Trey Vocker abstained from the vote.
In light of the failed vote, Hill asked that the Town Council revisit the matter in closed session during its next regular meeting on Dec. 22.
Afterward, Heck told The Ouachita Citizen, “We’re just going to wait and see.”