Commission rejects move to increase council oversight over Livingston parish president

The Livingston Parish Charter Review Commission grappled with so-called “gray areas” in the parish president’s powers Monday, trying to circumvent future disputes over budgeting practices and the selection of department heads.

Commissioner Scott Jones set off a lengthy discussion when he suggested that the parish president be required to seek council approval for any purchase or contract exceeding $10,000.

Under the parish’s Home Rule Charter, the parish president has the power to sign contracts for items or services “specifically identified” in the council-approved operating and capital improvement budgets or in an ordinance. All other contracts “not so identified” must receive council approval.

Jones said that provision seems clear enough, but he has seen several instances of unbudgeted contracts being signed without the council’s approval and, in some cases, without the council’s knowledge.

Examples Jones listed included the purchase of six tractors for the parish Department of Public Works and the renewal of a contract for medications at the parish jail.

Other commissioners disagreed that giving the council direct oversight for contracts over a set price would be the solution.

That would be the very definition of micromanagement, Commissioner Todd Caruso said.

“It’s not the council’s job to vote on tractors,” Caruso said. “That’s the parish president’s job, along with his department heads.”

Commissioner Rick Ramsey suggested instead defining the phrase “specifically identified” to mean contracts that are listed in the budget by vendor, item and estimated amount.

Contracts listed specifically in the budget would be presumed to have council approval because the council approves the budget, he said.

Jones recommended raising the president’s discretionary cap to $25,000 but otherwise stuck to his proposed amendment. His motion failed on a 5-4 vote with Ramsey, Caruso, Bob Watts, Jimmy Durbin and Rocky Brown voting against.

The commission agreed to discuss the issue further at its next meeting on March 3.

Other issues proved easier for the commission.

The group voted unanimously to give the parish president a 60-day deadline for submitting his selections for department heads to the parish council for approval.

The commission recommended raising the minimum age for parish president from 18 to 25, with at least three years residing in the parish instead of only one.

Commissioners voted unanimously to clarify that the president’s salary stated in the charter is a minimum. In practice, the salary is set by ordinance and exceeds the amount written in the charter.

The commission also recommended clarifying that the president is eligible for all benefits to which other parish employees are entitled, rather than specifying only “health and hospital insurance and retirement benefits.”

The group agreed to revisit the section on council member benefits during a later meeting to consider possible tweaks.

Commissioners had agreed Feb. 4 that council members should be expressly prohibited from taking any employee benefits in addition to their salary.

Commissioner Bob Watts suggested Monday that perhaps the council should be eligible to participate in group benefit plans if the council members pay the entire premium themselves.