For the first time in two years, Lafayette has a city marshal. And his time is almost up.
C. Michael Hill was installed as interim marshal in 2018, taking over after disgraced Marshal Brian Pope was convicted of crimes connected to a failed political scheme that lingered in public controversy.
In November, Hill officially assumed the role of city marshal after Pope exhausted his appeals and was formally removed from office. When he leaves in January, he’ll have served just six weeks in that “permanent” role and will pass the reins to whoever is elected in the Dec. 5 runoff between Duson Police Chief Kip Judice and former Lafayette Deputy Police Chief Reggie Thomas.
Hill walked into an office demoralized by scandal. Pope’s crimes and vanity hung a cloud over a small agency used to operating mostly out of public view. With Pope now in prison out of parish and a new marshal soon to be elected, the office is primed for its next chapter.
“This has been a rewarding time,” Hill says of his tenure. “I’m turning over an office of people who are well-qualified, well-trained and well-equipped. The morale is substantially higher than it was when I found it.”
Morale is pretty much all that’s changed. Hill decided early on to embrace the role of a caretaker. An interim appointee, it wasn’t his role to make-over the office; his was to keep the gears of Lafayette City Court running.
The marshal’s office is the court’s flywheel. Deputies serve warrants and execute court orders. They keep the peace during evictions and perform service on thousands of court filings every year. Service fees make up a big part of the marshal’s income. Pope and Nickey Picard, his predecessor, pocketed some of those fees in apparent violation of state law, though the practice stung only Pope.
Pope’s scandal didn’t disrupt the work. Hill found a workforce squeezed and fatigued by the turmoil. In a protracted battle with The Independent, a now-defunct local newspaper, Pope wrestled with his civil and criminal entanglements in a painful spotlight for years. Deputies felt unfairly exposed to the drama.
“They felt like they were getting ripped. I got here, and I said I understand what you do. I’ve been around marshals and marshals offices since 1977. When I got here, I was pleasantly surprised to find they were more highly trained than I expected them to be … and better equipped, and that’s a function of Nickey Picard and Brian Pope,” Hill says.
A former federal magistrate, Hill came out of semi-retirement to run point over the office. City Court judges Doug Saloom and Francie Bouillion sought him out both for his sterling reputation and for his experience working with the U.S. Marshal’s office while on the federal bench.
Marshal’s offices, Hill says, all generally function the same way. A former beat cop and prosecutor, he had plenty of experience to draw on in sizing up the temporary gig.
His demeanor and approach were a stabilizing force.
“When we asked Hill to take over, it’s because we knew the kind of person he is,” Judge Saloom says. “That’s been the atmosphere since the marshal took over.”
Former Chief Deputy Phil Conrad, Pope’s longtime partner, pushes back on Hill’s modesty, saying the temporary marshal took charge with clean cut decisiveness and a wry humor.
“He brought some stability. It was like a breath of fresh air,” Conrad says. “Mike took charge, whether he wants to take credit for it or not.”
But pressed, Hill holds the line on his role, keeping mum about whatever changes he’d like to see the next marshal make.
This year’s pandemic, of course, was disruptive for City Court and the marshal’s work. Deputies are kept from public-facing work as much as possible. A new online portal for paying fines and fees has helped the docket flow. With the parish jail booking only violent offenders, the court is issuing summons on most arrests and rescheduling missed court dates — that happens a lot.
Staying out of the politics of the runoff between Judice — who lost a bid for marshal to Brian Pope in 2014 — and Thomas, Hill raises but one issue he believes sorely needs addressing: building security.
”The security aspect of this job is the most significant. Going away, nothing close, I don’t have the facilities I’d like to have,” he says. Constructed decades ago, the building’s layout and facilities aren’t up to the safety standards he says are in place at Lafayette’s federal courthouse, which opened two decades ago. The vulnerabilities kept him up at night.
“A few hundred thousand dollars, and I’ll secure the damn thing,” Hill says. City Court would have to pry that money out of the city budget.
That’s now a battle for the next marshal to fight. But his office won’t have to be remade. Pope’s drama overshadowed his own good work as marshal; he ran a “good shop,” according to Saloom, that Hill did well to preserve.
“Anybody that works with an elected official knows after an election cycle the whole world restarts,” Saloom says.
For Hill’s deputies, the restart begins Jan. 1.