Inside Report for July 3, 2013

Court ruling already applied in West Feliciana

Ignoring the advice of their attorney and the majority opinion of the crowd that packed the larger of the parish’s two courtrooms, four West Feliciana Parish police jurors voted June 27 to call an Oct. 19 election on the question of whether the parish’s newly minted home-rule charter should be repealed.

The vote came a day after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the Voting Rights Act section dealing with the lineup of states and jurisdictions required to submit election law changes and redistricting plans to the U.S. Justice Department for approval.

The ruling leaves it to Congress to work up a new list of areas needing extra scrutiny because of their voter discrimination histories. Many people question whether Congress will act.

The Justice Department or a private citizen still has the right to file suit to challenge election and voting changes on the grounds that they discriminate against minorities.

One effect of the ruling is that West Feliciana no longer has to submit the charter and election of a parish president to the Justice Department for preclearance. The election can be held Oct. 19, provided jury officials move quickly to meet the state legal requirements for holding it.

Jurors Lea Williams, John Kean, Melvin Young and Otis Wilson voted to put the repeal question on the ballot, while Mel Percy, Heather Howle and Ricky Lambert dissented.

After the vote, Percy mentioned an ironic possibility voters may face Oct. 19: voting for a parish president and voting on a proposition to do away with the parish president.

Jerald Jones, the special attorney advising jurors on changing the parish’s form of government, told them state law does not prohibit them from putting the repeal question on the ballot, but neither does it authorize it.

Jones said the jurors, as interim parish council members, can call a repeal election after the charter takes effect, but the catch is that the charter doesn’t fully go into effect until a parish president is elected.

Jones said calling the repeal election exposes the jury to a lawsuit, “and there would be an argument for that lawsuit.”

A lawsuit had been filed earlier that day to force the jury to implement the charter, but no hearings in the case have been set yet.

Opponents of the charter said the document violates the voting rights of everyone, gives too much authority to the parish president, does not have enough checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches, raises the cost of government, sets a high salary for the president, removes the representatives for town of St. Francisville and the Tourist Commission from an economic development board, and has an odd arrangement for electing council members.

Howle, who voiced many of the objections but voted against a repeal election, apologized for not having been more familiar with the proposed charter before putting it on the Nov. 6 ballot. She also said the proposed council district plan by Kenner demographer Cedric Floyd is deeply flawed because it puts 1,809 people in one district and 3,074 in two others.

Jones agreed with Howle, saying Floyd’s plan is illegal under state law because the district populations are too uneven, but the jury has plenty of time to work on it before the 2015 elections.

Now, the repeal election call goes on to the state Bond Commission, while some charter supporters are gearing up for recall elections targeting the four jurors who support the repeal.

James Minton covers Baker, Zachary
and the Felicianas. His email address is jminton@theadvocate.com.