The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council appointed newly elected Councilman Ryan Heck to the Capital Area Transit System’s governing board Wednesday and reappointed three others to new terms on the nine-person board that oversees the parish’s public transportation system.
The appointments to the CATS board took center stage at the newly inaugurated council’s first meeting — which created some tension among council members, and pitted some public transportation advocate groups against one another.
Heck, who unseated one-term CATS board member Marla Williams, has been outspoken about his opposition to a 10.6-mill property tax that passed last April in Baton Rouge and Baker. But he said he has the know-how and experience to ensure the tax money is used wisely.
Board President Jared Loftus, Deborah Roe and Dalton Honoré were all reappointed to their seats on the nine-person CATS board. Despite several years of controversy surrounding CATS’ financial problems and decision to pursue the property tax, the three incumbents succeeded from a pool of 16 candidates.
The board appointments ignited the council’s first public argument, when some council members asked to defer the board selection.
The argument also entangled Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based nonprofit, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, and the CATS board chairman — all of whom had collaborated ahead of the April tax vote to lobby the community for its approval.
Together Baton Rouge leaders urged the council to defer the board appointments to give the organization time to publicly vet the candidates.
But Erin Monroe Wesley, from BRAC, and Loftus said delaying the vote could delay important upcoming business for CATS.
The council ultimately voted, 7-5, against a deferral. Chauna Banks-Daniel, Ronnie Edwards, C. Denise Marcelle, Tara Wicker and Joel Boé supported the deferral.
Edwards noted that it’s a “common courtesy” for council members to honor deferring appointments so colleagues can gather more information. She added that she was disappointed the council meeting had become “partisan.”
Marcelle said the council was being controlled by BRAC. She said council members she talked to before the meeting had agreed to defer a vote, but some changed their minds after officials from BRAC called individual council members urging them to push the vote on board appointments through.
“It’s a shame they’re (BRAC) getting involved in what we do up here,” she said, in an interview.
Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe acknowledged that he changed his mind after BRAC and “other people in the business community” convinced him the vote was time sensitive.
Loftus said after the meeting that the three returning members will provide important institutional knowledge, but added that he looks forward to working with Heck.
He said the decisions made this year by the board will be crucial to the future of CATS.
“This is a transition year,” he said. “This is the year we have to put in the planning and implementation of new service we’re going to provide in 2014. By no means is it smooth sailing from here.”
This year will be the first in CATS history that it receive a dedicated tax amounting to about $15 million in additional revenue; the agency promised to put that money toward drastically improving service and expanding routes.
Loftus said disagreeing with Together Baton Rouge on Wednesday night about deferring the appointments is “just a testament of people being able to work together and not agree on everything.”
But he also said it was public information that the CATS seats were being reappointed, and Together Baton Rouge had as much time as the council to vet the candidates.
Edgar Cage, a Together Baton Rouge leader, said the candidates were only made public Friday. But Cage said the disagreement did not “change our position one iota … We’re OK because we’re committed with whoever is working on the CATS board.”
Asked about his vision for the board, Heck said he doesn’t have an agenda.
“But I do have a logistics background,” he said. “Working in the concrete industry, moving a perishable product around town, trying to deliver on time and please the customer.”
Eight council members supported Heck’s appointment: Trae Welch, Banks-Daniel, Scott Wilson, Loupe, Buddy Amoroso, Boé and John Delgado. Heck also voted for himself.
In other business, the Metro Council unanimously voted to allow the Mayor-President’s Office to move forward with the proposed purchase of the old Woman’s Hospital on Airline Highway. The city-parish expects to purchase the 23-acre campus to house a joint headquarters for Baton Rouge Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office for $10 million.
The council’s action allows the city-parish to put down a $100,000 refundable deposit on the property and evaluate the property to determine if it will be suit the city-parish’s needs. The city-parish has 150 days to evaluate the property before closing on the purchase.
The Metro Council also unanimously approved a sales tax exemption for custom computer software designers, which include website designers and developers of smartphone applications.
A proposed settlement to relocate homeowners who live next to the North Water Treatment Plant was deferred for two weeks.