West Feliciana jurors vote for charter repeal election

The West Feliciana Parish Police Jury held a lengthy public hearing before a packed courtroom audience on the parish’s home-rule charter Thursday, then voted 4-3 to call an October election on the question of repealing the charter.

Jurors Lea Williams, Melvin Young, John Kean and Otis Wilson supported a repeal election, while Mel Percy, Heather Howle and Ricky Lambert dissented.

A majority of the people in the audience indicated by their applause that they were against a repeal election, and the jury’s attorney advised against it.

“I’m sorry, you don’t get a do-over,” resident Amy Betts said, while former charter commission Chairman Jack Hanemann called the election move “absurd.”

Before the vote, Percy said, to loud applause, “At the next meeting, I’d like to consider a full (recall) election on all of us.”

Overriding a vote of the people is “tyranny,” Percy said to more applause.

As they arrived, a West Feliciana Parish sheriff’s deputy served Wilson, Williams and Kean with copies of a lawsuit filed earlier Thursday by residents Walter T. Weller Jr. and James T. Weller III asking a judge to order the jury to implement the charter.

The suit seeks unspecified damages from Wilson, Williams and Kean, alleging they conspired to deliberately sabotage the charter’s implementation.

Parish voters approved the charter by a 337-vote margin in November. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Wednesday ruling on the federal Voting Rights Act clears the way for jurors to move forward with the election of a parish president.

Former Parish Manager Ambrose Sims, who opposes the charter, said 14 percent of the people who voted for president in November did not vote on the charter. “It should be revisited,” he said.

The charter also calls for a five-member parish council to replace the seven police jurors at the end of their terms. One member would be elected in parishwide balloting and four would be elected from single-member districts.

Kenner demographer Cedric Floyd drew a map with four proposed districts for submission to the U.S. Justice Department for approval under the Voting Rights Act, but the Supreme Court ruling nullified that requirement.

Voters still could file suit to claim that the voting changes dilute minority voting strength.

“I’ve been criticized, I’ve been scrutinized and I’ve been sued just because I wanted … to share this information,” Williams said during the public hearing.

“Why is there such a huge problem with talking about this charter?” Williams asked, saying she had been subjected to “nasty, mean talk” including the claim she is “too stupid” to understand the document.

Howle started the discussion by apologizing to her constituents for letting them down by not making them aware of some concerns she now has about the charter.

Howle said the proposed districts’ populations vary widely. Floyd’s proposed District D would have 3,074 people, but District A has only 1,809 people.

Several jurors said the charter should have been presented to the voters with an equitable districting plan attached, but Percy asked special attorney Jerald Jones for a possible downside to that approach.

Jones said the plan would have had to have been carefully drawn with professional help for submission to the voters and then to the Justice Department, which could have thrown it out for diluting minority voting strength.

“The logic was why go through the expense until you know for sure the citizens want the home-rule charter,” Jones said, adding that Floyd’s districts, because of their varying populations, are not legal under Louisiana law.

Responding to a question from Percy, Jones also said the jury would be violating the charter if it does not put the parish president’s ballot before voters in the Oct. 19 election.

Later, Jones said he can find no law that allows the jury to call an election to repeal the charter. Doing so, he added, would likely result in a lawsuit, and “there would be an argument for that lawsuit.”

“The consequences of that would be expensive,” said resident Kevin Couhig in urging Kean to withdraw his motion, but Kean said other attorneys have told him the jury has the right to call the repeal election.

Once the charter goes into effect, the governing body in office then could try to repeal the charter through an election, Jones said.

“The charter goes into effect when the parish president is elected,” Jones said.

Howle, Williams, Kean and Young also raised concerns about the power of the parish president, the president’s salary, the omission of the town of St. Francisville and the Tourist Commission from an economic development board, creating a legal department and other aspects of the charter.