West Feliciana residents working to force recall elections

West Feliciana Parish residents seeking to recall two police jurors began gathering signatures in earnest Thursday during a community meeting to discuss the merits of a home-rule form of government that voters approved last year.

Becky Hilliard and Amy Betts are co-chairwomen of the campaign to recall District 1 Juror Lea Williams, while Ellen Kennon and James R. Wood are leading the effort to unseat Juror John Kean.

Williams, Kean and Jurors Melvin Young and Otis Wilson voted June 27 to call an Oct. 19 election on the question of repealing the charter, which resulted in the two recall campaigns.

Twentieth Judicial District Judge William G. Carmichael ruled Wednesday, however, that the jury cannot put a repeal question on the ballot because jurors do not have that authority under state law.

Carmichael ruled in a lawsuit filed by Z. David DeLoach, a member of the commission that wrote the charter document.

Hilliard and Betts need the signatures of at least one-third of District 1’s 1,127 registered voters, or about 376, to force a recall election on Williams, but Hilliard said her group hopes to get 400 to 410 voters to sign its petition.

To successfully force Kean’s recall, Kennon and Wood need to obtain 362 of District 5’s 1,083 voters to sign the petition.

District 1 includes the town of St. Francisville, while District 5 runs north from the town to the Laurel Hill area and east to Thompson Creek north of La. 10.

Kennon said her committee will “try to get as many as we can.”

“We don’t want to take any chances,” Kennon said.

In addition to the recall effort, Thursday’s meeting at Hemingbough included a discussion of the need for home-rule government.

“The (present) system is not working for us, in economic development and getting the ordinances passed that we need,” businesswoman Dorcas Brown said.

“We’re doing a recall because four police jurors violated our voting rights,” Wood said.

St. Francisville resident Claire Mott said Williams is being unfairly singled out because of one vote she made, while largely being responsible for changing the way the jury has operated since she has been in office.

Speakers said the charter will be implemented when a parish president is elected and the jury has called an Oct. 19 election for president.

The seven jurors will become Parish Council members once the president takes office, and they will continue in office through the end of 2015.

The charter calls for the next Parish Council to have five members: four elected in single-member districts and one elected at large.

Parish resident David Treppendahl said he is concerned that an equitable distribution of voters can be made in four single-member districts while not diluting the voting strength of black residents.

He said the jury’s demographer, Cedric Floyd, was able to draw four districts with two white majorities and two black majorities. However, the white-majority districts had much larger populations and would be illegal under state law.

“I don’t see any way with the demographics that you end up with two black-majority districts,” Treppendahl said.

“What you’ve seen is not written in stone,” Juror Mel Percy replied, saying another demographer may be called for assistance in drawing the four single-member districts.

Lawyer Shane Landry, who served on the charter commission, said the charter would allow for an amendment, after the parish president is seated, to change the number of council districts.

“We have more than enough time,” Landry said, because the next election is two years away.

Although a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling eliminates the requirement for U.S. Justice Department approval of the voting changes, black residents could challenge the charter under Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Landry said the burden of proof has shifted, however. Now the plaintiffs would have to show that the charter discriminates against black residents, rather than the parish government having to show it is not discriminating.

“They would have a very steep hill to climb,” Landry said.