Attempt to hire attorney halted

W. Feliciana balks in official change

A move to hire an attorney to guide the West Feliciana Parish Police Jury in changing to a president-council form of government died in a lopsided vote Monday.

Voters approved a proposed home-rule charter Nov. 6 by a 337-vote margin. The measure calls for a parish president, one parish council member elected in parishwide balloting and four council members selected from single-member districts.

Dan Garrett, a Baton Rouge lawyer who specializes in governmental issues, said the jury, in his opinion, cannot hold an election for parish president until it creates four proposed districts and submits the entire charter proposal for U.S. Department of Justice clearance.

The next possible election for a parish president would be April 6, but Garrett said too much work needs to be done before the election deadline to get Justice Department approval.

Juror Otis Wilson, a home-rule charter opponent, questioned whether a “secret meeting” was held to put Garrett’s name up for consideration.

Jack Hanemann, the charter commission’s chairman, said he was asked to meet with the parish treasurer to discuss how the charter would affect next year’s jury budget process. The jury now operates with a budget based on the calendar year, but the charter specifies the council will operate on a July 1 to June 30 fiscal year.

“A lot of other people walked in,” Hanemann said.

He said that jury President Ricky Lambert said he made sure a quorum of jurors was not present at any time.

Wilson and jurors Lea Williams, John Kean and Melvin Young voted against the resolution to hire Garrett, while Lambert and Mel Percy supported it. Juror Heather Howle was absent.

Garrett, who has represented the state municipal and police jury associations, said the jury must first draw the boundary lines for the four single-member districts and submit them with the charter’s other election changes as a single package.

The Justice Department must “preclear” the charter under a section of the federal Voting Rights Act. But Garrett said the department, because of the extent of the changes, likely will take the full 120 days it has to act once the proposal is submitted.

The jury passed a resolution acknowledging the returns of the charter election, but took no other action to implement the charter.

Williams said she wants to look at other lawyers who may be experts in redistricting and charter changes.

In other business, jurors and bicycling enthusiast agreed to work together to develop a permitting process to give the Sheriff’s Office and fire departments advance notice of large, organized bicycle-riding events in the parish.

An item on the agenda mentioned possibly requiring a permit when three or more riders are in a group, but Percy apologized for the wording, saying it was intended to focus on larger cycling events.

“There’ve been a lot of races, and we didn’t know about them,” he said.

Bruce Wickert, a Baton Rouge cycling enthusiast, said riders are attracted to the parish because it is a beautiful area and the people are friendly.

He said the cyclists are willing to work with a committee to develop reasonable standards for organized rides.