Inside Report for Nov. 21, 2012

West Feliciana governmental changes in works

Parish government in West Feliciana is about to undergo some major changes, but when is anyone’s guess.

Parish voters, with a 65.9 percent turnout, approved a home-rule charter on Nov. 6 that will replace West Feliciana’s traditional seven-member police jury form of government with a parish president and a five-member council.

The charter passed by a 322-vote margin, surprising some who thought it would be rejected by a large margin.

The post-election process immediately hit a snag Tuesday when a majority of jurors voted against hiring Baton Rouge lawyer Dan Garrett to guide them through the transition. Jurors Otis Wilson and Lea Williams questioned how Garrett was selected for consideration while Juror Mel Percy said he hopes Wilson and Williams aren’t trying to delay the process with extraneous issues.

Wilson campaigned against the charter, claiming the plan of government will dilute the parish’s minority vote.

At some point, the current police jurors — who will be known as council members when a president takes office — will have to draw the new districts from which four council members will be elected. The fifth council member will run parishwide. The seven jurors will serve out their terms before the five-member council takes over.

Before Tuesday’s jury vote, Garrett told the jurors the idea of holding a parish president election on April 6 is off the table because the jury first must draw the four election districts and submit the entire package of voting changes to the Justice Department for approval under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Because the charter has so many election changes, the department likely will take the full 120 days the law allows it for making a decision, Garrett said.

The council elections are supposed to be in the fall of 2015, but one of the issues that must pass federal muster is whether having a “super council member” running parishwide affects minority voting strength. The arrangement also could lead to conflicts between the parish president and the at-large council member since both are elected in parishwide balloting.

Leaving the election questions aside, other possible changes in the offing suggest the charter commission that wrote the document may have been influenced by some of the tea party fervor that popped up several years ago.

For instance, council members’ salaries are locked in at $800 per month, with no benefits or in-parish travel reimbursement. They are limited to two consecutive four-year terms “in the same seat” and will have to be residents of their respective districts for three years to hold office. Voters will decide if council members ever get a raise.

Police jurors now draw a $1,200 per month salary along with some benefits and may remain in office as long as the voters re-elect them.

The parish president must be at least 30 years old and a parish resident for at least five years, but the charter takes into account his or her status as a full-time parish employee. The salary will be an average of the money paid to the sheriff, assessor and clerk of court, and the president will be eligible for retirement, insurance and other benefits, plus either a parish vehicle or travel reimbursement.

The charter strictly limits the council’s discretion in calling tax elections by requiring them to be at the same time as general elections for a variety of elected officials, or about once every two years.

Tuesday’s vote shows, however, that a lot of ground must be covered before West Feliciana ditches the police jury system.

James Minton covers Baker, Zachary and the Felicianas for The Advocate. His email is jminton@theadvocate.com.