Inside Report: Livingston commission or council? 

What do the people of Livingston Parish know about parish government’s problems?

Council Chairman Marshall Harris’s question permeated a June 13 discussion of whether a charter commission is needed to review and suggest changes to the parish government’s founding document.

The Livingston Parish Home Rule Charter can be amended following either a petition of 10 percent of the parish’s registered voters or a two-thirds vote of the parish council. Either way, the changes must be approved by a majority vote of the people.

The charter makes no mention of a review commission, but the council was on track to appoint one — with one member for each of the nine council districts — until June 13, when Parish President Layton Ricks asked to have a pair of appointments to the commission as well.

“I don’t think we have to have a commission, as long as two-thirds of the council agrees,” Harris said.

“I think you’re making a mistake if you don’t,” Ricks said. “Where’s my voice?”

“You can veto it,” Harris replied.

Ricks laughed. “You’ll just override it.”

He and the council have been at odds over numerous issues — including parish budgeting practices, hiring outside attorneys, payment of bills and council approval of administrative department heads — stemming from a fundamental disagreement over their respective roles under the charter.

Ricks is 0 for 2 this year on vetoes involving such issues; the council overrode him both times.

This kind of deadlock is why parish officials should remove themselves from the charter review process, he said.

“I think a commission is a good idea because we can get different mindsets, rather than just ours,” Ricks said.

Councilman Ricky Goff agreed, saying, “The more heads in the room coming up with ideas to bring to the council, the better. …

“I think we’d have a much better chance for the people of this parish to understand this is a progressive thing to be put on the ballot, not something the council is trying to hoodwink the parish president with.”

Councilman Chance Parent, who initially suggested creating the commission, said he continued to favor public involvement.

“That’s their decision, not ours. That’s their document,” Parent said. “I would rather see nine people, with ex-officios from the council and president.”

But Harris said amending the charter is ultimately a legislative function entrusted to the parish’s legislative body.

“What do the people out there know about what the problems are? We sit here and deal with it every day. We know the gray areas,” Harris said.

Two of the biggest gray areas, he later said, are the parish government’s right to control its legal expenses by hiring its own attorney, rather than having one appointed by the district attorney, and being able to see some end-of-year figures before setting the next year’s budget.

After the meeting, Harris said the council may still form a commission — with nine council-appointed members — but council members also would reserve their right to propose any changes they can get two-thirds agreement on, independent of the commission’s recommendations.

“It’s a legislative act, changing the verbiage of the charter, and we’re the parish’s legislative body,” he said.

The nine-member commission can clean up the smaller issues, he said, after the council has addressed those it considers to be most important.

Heidi Kinchen covers Livingston Parish government for The Advocate. She can be reached at hkinchen@theadvocate.com.