Parishes debate changes in forms of government

With the recent opening of the John James Audubon Bridge linking Pointe Coupee and West Feliciana, both parishes are in a position to spur economic growth.

So residents in both parishes are now debating whether changing their forms of government could help facilitate that growth.

“Other parishes that have home rule charters are seeing increases in jobs, industry and quality of life,” said Steve Boudreaux, chairman of Progress for Pointe Coupee LLC. “We’re not seeing that because we’re not strong enough politically. We don’t have a parish president up at the capitol lobbying for our parish the way other places do.”

On the other hand, West Feliciana Police Juror Otis Wilson sees a problem with a president-council form of government.

“I don’t think a switch will work here,” he said. “It could put one group in control over another. I could see it leading to minorities having little or no say-so.”

The debates in West Feliciana and Pointe Coupee are similar to those played out in other parishes that ultimately abandoned the traditional police jury system of governance in favor of a system with a parish president and a parish council.

Detractors of the police jury system say it is an antiquated form of government that gives police jurors the incentive to vote solely for the wishes of their individual districts, or wards, votes that are not necessarily in the best interest of the entire parish.

Those detractors prefer that local governments adopt a home rule charter — essentially a parish constitution spelling out a separation of power between the legislative and executive branches — that would call for a parish council and a parish president.

They also note that home rule charters give parishes more autonomy, allowing the local bodies to create sewerage, taxing and road districts without approval from the state Legislature.

Opponents of the president-council system, however, say it puts too much power in the hands of the parish president and can leave rural populations underrepresented.

In some parishes, such as Livingston and Ascension, the switch to home rule charter government has been a bumpy ride.

Livingston Parish voters adopted a home rule charter in 1994, ushering in a period of rapid economic growth.

But over the past few years, Livingston Parish Council members have been clashing with President Mike Grimmer, arguing over cleaning up after Hurricane Gustav, expenditures by the parish president to pay road maintenance workers, and Grimmer’s push to build a baseball stadium.

Voters in Ascension Parish adopted a home rule charter in 1993. The first parish president, Tommy Martinez, managed to retain a majority of support on the council during the first special two-year term, but he lost that support during his next four-year term.

Martinez lost his re-election bid in 1999 and his two successors, Harold Marchand and Ronnie Hughes, also battled with the council. Martinez regained office in 2008 and has a majority of council members supporting his agenda.

Robert Travis Scott, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said that despite the potential for political discord, parishes operating under home rule charters generally have made improvements in government accountability and efficiency.

“I’ve heard people use the argument that most parishes in the state still use the police jury system,” Scott said. “I would say, why would you want to be like most parishes? … Most parishes show very poor results in terms of education, health care and economic development.”

West Feliciana Parish

In January, the West Feliciana Police Jury appointed a commission to draft a proposed home rule charter.

Next summer, voters in this rural parish of about 15,000 people will get a chance either to accept the charter or keep the police jury system.

“Our parish has not grown in the last 20 years,” said Jack Hanemann, who chairs the parish’s 11-member home rule charter commission. He added that Police Jury meetings have turned into “an embarrassing sideshow.”

Last year, he noted, the seven-member Police Jury submitted to the state Legislature eight funding requests, most of which were rejected.

“If we had a parish president, we could have prioritized one or two requests,” Hanemann said. “When the Legislature sees eight, nine or 10 requests, they think we don’t know what we’re doing.”

The commission’s home rule charter draft, still a work in progress, would establish a parish president position while limiting that office and parish council members to two four-year terms in office, he said.

Commission member Z. David DeLoach added that a clear separation of powers would be more attractive to businesses looking to expand in West Feliciana Parish.

“As a businessman, I need to know who’s in charge,” said DeLoach, who owns a tow boat business in Port Allen. “Right now, we have seven people in charge.”

But the idea of a single contact at the top can just as easily lead to other problems, said Wilson, the police juror.

Wilson, who has served on the Police Jury for the past 17 years, said he understands the momentum for adopting a home rule charter because several projects — including a parish library, a jobs program and a low-income housing initiative — have stalled in the past two years because of clashing personalities.

But doing away with the current system could marginalize rural and minority populations, he said.

Pointe Coupee Parish

The push to adopt a home rule charter isn’t nearly as far along in Pointe Coupee Parish, where resistance has been strong.

The idea of switching forms of government was first floated in March 2009 by state Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete, who has called police juries “the way of the past.”

The topic came up again in August when the Police Jury rejected Marionneaux’s request to form a home rule charter commission.

Police Jury President Melanie Bueche said most of the constituents she’s spoken with are satisfied with the current system.

Parish administrator Jim Bello noted that voters in the parish last year overwhelmingly agreed to renew a ‰-cent sales tax for road improvements. “People are happy with the job we’re doing,” he said. “We have 114 miles of parish roads and we’ve addressed them all.”

Growth has stalled in this rural parish of 22,000 people because of the lack of a skilled workforce, Bello said.

“We’ve been to D.C., we’ve talked to lobbyists, we’ve chased businesses, we’ve asked them if they care what type of government we have. They don’t care. They say our schools are our biggest negative.”

This spring, the Police Jury held five informational meetings throughout the parish to discuss the differences in each form of government.

Adopting a home rule charter had traction in New Roads, the parish’s biggest municipality, but nowhere else, Bello said.

“Some people in New Roads want control and the smaller communities can smell that,” Bello said.

Pointe Coupee Police Juror Kurt Jarreau said he hasn’t taken a position on which system is better, but he did acknowledge the slow pace of some Police Jury operations.

Every request, whether it’s “for $10 or $100,000,” has to come before the jury, Jarreau said.

“The system needs to move faster, but is a home rule charter the answer? I don’t know that it is,” he said. “If we could delegate some things like hiring and firing, we’d be better.”

Boudreaux said Progress for Pointe Coupee LLC — a group of 10 people advocating for a home rule charter — has collected half of the 1,600 signatures, or 10 percent of the parish’s registered voters, needed to force the Police Jury to call an election to elect home rule charter commissioners, who would then draft a proposed charter to also go before the voters.

Boudreaux pointed to St. Martin Parish as an example of how a home rule charter can jumpstart progress.

St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier recently appeared before the Pointe Coupee Police Jury, telling the jurors that the “business-style of government” brought about when voters in St. Martin adopted a home rule charter in 1999 has “transformed the parish.”

Since the switch, Cormier said, St. Martin Parish has completed $40 million in infrastructure projects and has undertaken an $11 million courthouse renovation even as it has been able to roll back property taxes.

Drafting a charter

St. Landry Parish President Don Menard said the home rule charter system is a better form of government only if the charter is drafted correctly.

St. Landry Parish kept its seven taxing districts when its voters adopted a charter in 2004, he said.

That led to a lack of revenue to fix parish roads — the parish’s biggest concern, he said.

“In my home district, we raise about $165,000 per year for roads, but it costs $180,000 to overlay a mile of road,” he said.

“If we’d created one district, one source of recurring revenue strictly to improve roads, we could have done $40 million in road construction by now,” he said.

While several south Louisiana parishes have adopted home rule charters over the past 30 years, police juries still rule in the northern part of the state.

Bossier Parish in northwest Louisiana is run by a 12-member Police Jury, with District 9 juror Bill Altimus serving as the parish administrator.

Bossier Parish’s population grew by 18 percent, to about 117,000 people, between 2000 and 2010, Altimus noted.

That influx of people followed a surge in infrastructure improvements and economic development projects conceived under the police jury system, he said.

A comprehensive three-year road program, a parishwide sewer system and several road extensions have either been completed recently or are in the works, he said.

Bossier Parish voters in November will decide whether to green-light a casino and resort adjacent to the Red River, Altimus said.

“Our growth under the police jury system has just been tremendous,” Altimus said. “There haven’t been any constraints or handicaps.”

It’s about the people

Albert Samuels, a political science professor at Southern University, said there’s little use arguing over which system works better.

“People who usually make those arguments usually have a dog in the fight,” he said.

In theory, he said, home rule charters put more power in the hands of local government, allowing them to be more ambitious in their long-term planning. “The question is: What’s that power going to be used for? Citizens have a role to play in what manner of accountability they hold elected officials,” he said.

“Politics isn’t about structure, it’s about what people do collectively in planning for their future,” he continued. “No system can overcome incompetence of elected officials or the disengagement of the people.”