Bennett being ousted over term limits
The embattled chairwoman of the Historic Preservation Commission is being ousted from the board. But surprisingly, Carolyn Bennett’s removal is unrelated to the recent controversy between the commission and some members of the Metro Council.
Bennett, who has served on the commission since 2004, is ineligible to serve on the commission because of term limits, according to an opinion issued Thursday from the parish attorney’s office.
The Metro Council appointed Bennett to a third term at a September 2011 meeting — apparently unaware that commission seats have a two-term cap under East Baton Rouge’s Unified Development Code. Her first term was three years, and the next two terms were four-year appointments.
“It is the opinion of this office that because Ms. Bennett had already served the maximum term allowed by law, her reappointment in September of 2011 is null and void,” Assistant Parish Attorney Lea Anne Batson wrote in her opinion.
Batson adds that Bennett will continue to serve until a successor is appointed.
The Metro Council will vote on Bennett’s replacement at the Jan. 8 meeting, said council administrator Casey Cashio.
Bennett said in a phone interview Friday that she is out of town at the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis, Ind., but plans to meet with the parish attorney’s office Monday to discuss the opinion.
“My question is why didn’t anyone know this when I was appointed in 2011,” Bennett said. “I knew there were term limits, but it’s not something you think about every day.”
Ironically, the matter was brought to the parish attorney’s office by Bennett, who asked the Planning Commission staff to give her a report on each of the commissioners’ term expirations and eligibility for re-appointment.
Bennett said she asked the question only to get an update on when the commissioners’ terms were ending, adding that she was caught off guard by the opinion now being used as justification to replace her.
The city-parish ordinance that establishes the Historic Preservation Commission states that “none of the six Metro Council-appointed members of the HPC shall serve more than two consecutive full, three year terms.”
Bennett fully served a three-year and four-year term, making her ineligible for her third four-year term.
The parish Plan of Government provides that boards and commissions whose members are appointed by the Metro Council — excluding elected officials, ex-officio members and fire protection districts — are also limited to two consecutive terms, or eight years. However, board members can serve a third consecutive term if they get votes from three-fourths of the members of the Metro Council. Cashio said he will be reviewing other board appointments to determine if anyone else is ineligible to serve.
The parish-attorney’s office said the three-fourths vote of the Metro Council doesn’t apply to the preservation commission because it is governed by the more restrictive provisions of the UDC.
Bennett and two other members of the commission have been under fire recently after some Metro Council members accused them of favoritism and violating the state’s open meetings laws.
Last week, Metro Councilman Ryan Heck publicly called Bennett and her colleagues “clowns,” and brought to light two instances when the commission met without posting legally required public notices. He and Councilman John Delgado have since discussed removing the offending commissioners from the board.
Heck previously had threatened to impose a moratorium on the commission, removing their ability to approve permits for property owners in historic districts who want to make aesthetic changes to their properties.
In response to news that Bennett would be replaced on the commission, Heck said he’s still looking into the other issues.
“Everything is still on the table,” he said.
Councilwoman Tara Wicker, whose district encompasses the only two locally designated historic districts in the parish, said she was surprised by the opinion, but doesn’t feel the council has any choice but to move forward.
Wicker said that despite recent clashes with her council colleagues and members of the Planning Commission, she thinks Bennett has served as a good advocate for the commission.
Bennett said she found the timing of the revelation curious, but said she will continue to advocate for historic preservation even if she’s removed from the board.
“My whole career has been on behalf of preservation and heritage,” she said. “I’ll just play another role.”