Once again, on the December 6 ballot, Livingston Parish voters will be asked to say yea or nay on several proposed amendments. This time it is about our Home Rule Charter, which we have had since 1994. As you can tell from the title, I am urging everyone to vote NO on all five proposes amendments. I will tell you why in a minute, but first, a little history lesson is on order.
Prior to 1994, Livingston Parish had the traditional Police Jury form of government, which was,quite common in Louisiana at that time. The parish government consisted of elected Police Jury Members from separate districts. There was no parish ‘executive’. Each member was equal. Any action took a majority vote of the Police Jury. In reality, each juror was autonomous, pretty much running things in his or her district, for good or bad. Under that system, individual police jurors had a lot of power and influence. They could solely select and prioritize public works projects in their own district. There was no coordinated public works system, which prioritized projects based on need. Each juror got the road and drainage equipment on a rotating basis, one month each. If it was the Police Jury member from Walker’s turn with the equipment and manpower, too bad if a road needed fixing north of Albany or a canal was blocked in Maurepas. That stuff just had to wait. Sometimes for months.
Another problem was there was nobody really in charge. No one who was responsible to the voters of the Parish as a whole. No one to make sure things got done parish wide and was able to prioritize projects. Also, there was no one who spoke for the Parish as a whole, which was a big hindrance with economic development and trying to bring new businesses, employers and jobs to the parish.
By the early 1990’s, some folks in Livingston Parish had had enough of the old system. They wanted a home rule charter that did away with the Police Jury. Although the Police Jury itself was not so keen on that idea, they decided to placate everyone by appointing a Home Rule Charter Committee to study the matter. The committee went to work and recommended a home rule charter, with a council-president form of government. The president would be the executive branch and the council would be the legislative branch. Not unlike the relationship between the President and Congress or the Governor and the Legislature. Sounds simple enough. Of course, the Police Jury was not in favor of that and tried to stall, by not voting to put the proposed charter on the ballot. . Only they soon found out that, under Louisiana law, once they had appointed the home rule charter committee and the committee submitted a proposed charter, no further approval from the Police Jury was necessary. The electorate of Livingston Parish overwhelmingly approved the new system.
The Council-President form of government is not unusual in Louisiana. In fact, 18 parishes utilize this method, including neighboring parishes such as Tangipahoa, Ascension, St. Tammany, Washington and West Baton Rouge. It seems to work well, without constant fights over the meaning of the charter itself and the role of the council and the president. Everywhere but here, that is.
Voters in Livingston Parish are well familiar with the numerous problems that have arisen here between the Parish President, current and former, and the Council regarding the meaning of the charter and who has what powers and who does not. What the charter says and what it means seems to depend on who is doing the reading and what outcome those readers want to see. The charter itself is not difficult to read. It on written in simple English, is only 26 pages long and is organized into neat and logical sections. But for the last few years, it has been such a bone of contention, you would think it was actually written in ancient Greek or something.
Every dispute about what is an executive function and what is a legislative function seems to involve acrimony, lawyers, failing to follow good legal advice, attorney general’s opinions, special counsel, legal fees and lawsuits. And every time, it seems the side that is not getting its way, usually the Council, claims that the charter is “ambiguous” or has “gray areas”. Really? Not to most of us who can read and write English, but that is there story and they are sticking to it.
People in Livingston Parish are tired of petty politics, egotistical elected officials, those who feel that the charter somehow limits their inherent or divine right to rule and are too willing to turn every disagreement into a battle royale and keep spending our money to sue each other. Especially when, at the same time, they cannot pave the roads, submit and approve a budget on time, or deliver other basic services.
Now to why I voted “No” and encourage all of you to do the same. In the interest of trying to fix this mess, last year the Council appointed a committee of citizens to study and recommend changes to the Home Rule Charter. Some good people were on that committee and worked hard to get it right. Many of them quit when the realized the Council members were trying to manage the process and put “the fix” in before the changes even made it to the ballot. Others kept working. Eventually, they submitted 20 proposed changes, including things like term limits, would limit the ability of Council members, who serve part time by the way, to participate in the Parish’s employee health insurance and benefit programs and several other potentially significant changes. With that in mind, you might ask “So, what did the Council do.”
True to form, they hand picked only 5 of the 20 proposed amendments to submit for voter approval. And not just any 5 either. They picked the ones that they claim would “tweak” the current charter and clear up the gray areas. They also happen to be the same 5 that would have the effect of tilting the balance of power in their favor when it comes to disputes with the Parish President. The same 5 that would allow the charter to be interpreted in a way more to their liking. So, you get the idea. And speaking for me, that pissed me off.
If we need to amend the charter, so be it. But put all of the recommended changes on the ballot and let the voters have the opportunity to vote up or down. After all, we are the ones who approved the charter in the first place. The fact that they threw out three quarters of the proposed amendment and kept only the five that would benefit them is a slap in the face to every voter in this parish. I for one don’t like being treated like a mushroom; you know, kept in the dark and fed a steady diet of manure. I am sure most of you don’t either. Until they put all of the recommendations on the ballot, the correct vote is “NO”.
Now that folks have started to speak out about, once again, being shut out of the process, some Council members are claiming that they have not rejected the other proposals, but, depending on who you talk to, (1) wanted to put the most important ones on the ballot first; (2) did not want to ‘confuse’ the voters with “too many’ issues at one time; or (3) they need more time to ‘study’ the other proposals. Once again, I have to call “male bovine fecal matter’ on that one and you should too.
It is time to let the ‘powers that be’ know that we have had enough. More than enough. That it is time for them to put away their petty fights, quit acting like a bunch of adolescents who don’t like it when they don’t get their way and quit treating all of us like subjects. It is time to stop the bickering and do the job you were elected to do: pave the roads, keep the canals clean, pass a budget, prioritize projects and act like public servants. Until they prove they can do that, we don’t need to participate in furthering their political gamesmanship.