Tension-filled Strategic Planning session portends Charter Commission

The mood at Thursday’s Strategic Planning discussion of A Better Ascension’s (ABA) proposal to amend the parish’s Home Rule Charter was a tense one, focused not on the document’s specific provisions but the broader themes which have overtaken politics in America.  “Dark money” PAC or selfless servant of the people worthy of 501 (C)(4) tax exempt status?  Whatever ABA is, its effort to force the Parish Council’s hand into a November 18 vote to abolish the parish presidency in favor of a Council-hired Manager hired from a Chamber of Commerce approved list of candidates appears headed to a Charter Commission.

What a difference two weeks can make.

When ABA launched its website, replete with meaningless statistics and scripted platitudes for an assortment of concerned citizens to mouth, Chairman Bill Dawson seemed intent on introducing the requisite ordinance at the Council’s August 17 meeting.  Given the procedural hoops through which to jump, it was the last opportunity (short of a Special Council meeting) if ABA’s overhaul of the charter could make it to Secretary of State Tom Schedler’s desk by the September 25 deadline for inclusion on the November 18 ballot.

Why the Council is even considering any charter amendments proposed by ten citizens is a mystery.  Ascension’s current charter details the procedure for altering the document at:

ARTICLE IX. AMENDMENT OR REPEAL 

Section 9.01. Origination.

An amendment to or the repeal of this charter may be proposed by at least two-thirds of the members of the governing authority or by a petition.

Section 9-02. Procedure by Petition.

If the proposed amendment or repeal is proposed by petition the following procedure shall be followed:

1. Any qualified elector may submit the proposal to the governing authority which shall specify within thirty (30) days a form of petition for circulation with the date of approval recorded. The petition shall contain the full text of the proposed amendment or repeal.

2. The signature of at least thirty-three (33) percent of the qualified electors as of the date of submission shall be obtained.

Louisiana Revised Statute 33: §1395.4. Amendment of charter reads:

“Any parish or municipality may amend an existing home rule charter either by amendments proposed by the charter commission or by amendments proposed by the governing body.”

But the ten members of A Better Ascension, comprising .01% of Ascension’s qualified electors, have gotten the Council’s attention without filing a petition.  Councilman Benny Johnson wants to take it slower than the Council Chairman.

“For such a large change with this document, our governing document…a (Charter Commission) is the avenue we have to change that document,” Johnson avoided the rhetorical flourish which dominated Strategic Planning’s nearly three hour discussion.  “To present something that will wholly change, without being properly vetted,…it lends to some questions.”

Certain of those questions were directed to ABA representatives by three Council members who comprised Strategic Planning (Councilmen Oliver Joseph and John Cagnolatti were absent).

  • Why has A Better Ascension not asked the Council to convene a Charter Commission to consider the monumental changes being proposed?
  • Is the timing of its effort to abolish Ascension’s parish presidency dictated by the “shadow cast” by current president, Kenny Matassa’s indictment on bribery charges?
  • Is the organization a Political Action Committee masquerading as a Non-Profit Corporation; and will it disclose the source of its funding?

The last was asked by Chairman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee who allowed ABA’s designee, and two other speakers representing organizations, ten minutes at the public speakers microphone while 23 individuals were allotted the standard three minutes.  No one from ABA stood up to identify the group’s contributors, understandable since it selected Scott Johnson who is the appointed County Administrator of Columbia County, GA to present ABA’s case.

Columbia County (Georgia) Administrator

According to Johnson, things are going great in Columbia County where a five-member commission directs his activities.  Nobody bothered to explain how that is relevant to Ascension Parish.

A social media discussion group, A Better Ascension? For Who? was invited to the party and its Facebook administrator, Bobby Hoyt, designated former candidate for parish president, Clint Cointment to argue against ABA’s proposal.  A third ten minutes was afforded to Kathryn Goppelt, President of Ascension Republican Parish Executive Committee (ARPEC).

Cointment, alone, delved into particular provisions of ABA’s proposal discussing the nominating procedure for a Council Manager if the voters ever decide to abolish Ascension’s parish presidency pursuant to its proposal which includes:

“The nominating committee shall be composed of five natural persons.”  The Parish Council gets to choose two of the five; one MUST come from a pool of “managerial or executive employee(s)” from one of Ascension’s ten largest employers…and another from a list of candidates put forward by Ascension’s “recognized Rotary organizations…”

“The Board of Directors of the Ascension Chamber shall appoint two persons”to the nominating committee.  The fifth member is “Superintendent of Ascension Parish Schools, or his designee.”  Current School Superintendent David Alexander is also a member of the Chamber’s Board of Directors and if he does not serve as a nominating committee member the “Board of Directors of the Ascension Parish Chamber shall make a third appointment.”

Clint Cointment (file photo)

“If ABA’s amendment passes I need to figure out what club I need to join to take part in my parish government,” Cointment asked, calling for the School Board to issue a statement with regard to its involvement with A Better Ascension, if any.

He likened the proposal to a dictatorship claiming ABA’s amendments stripped the Parish Council of authority, in addition to abolishing the presidency, ceding it to an appointed manager.

“Under no circumstance will I give away my right to vote on who governs me,” he declared.

Therein lies a paradox noted by Councilman Aaron Lawler:

“How do you tell somebody they have the right to vote by denying the right to vote?”

It made for a nice soundbite but avoids the discussion which might only be had when a body is convened to examine, line by line, what is being proposed by ABA.  The suggested revisions are extensive, abolition of the parish presidency foremost in ABA’s sights, but the Parish Council’s authority would be severely curtailed.

If adopted Ascension’s voters will be deprived of their “right to vote” for the chief executive.  ABA’s initial press campaign stressed that the Council would be tasked with creating a vision for Ascension’s future; a vision that a Council-appointed (by a simple majority of six) manager is supposed to fulfill.  ABA’s manager would take the place of a Chief Administrative Officer, the entire Finance and Human Resources departments would be abolished and filled by his/her appointees.  Also, “determination of the compensation of an individual employee or officer shall remain within the authority of the parish manager.

If that isn’t enough power to grant an unelected manager; ABA proposes…

ARTICLE V. ADMINISTRATION

Section 5-01 Administrative Departments, Agencies and Office. 

  1. The administrative departments, agencies, and offices of the parish shall be those established BY RECOMMENDATION OF THE PARISH MANAGER and approved by the governing authority;
  2. The head of each parish department, agency or office shall be appointed by and report to THE PARISH MANAGER, except to the extent the parish manager delegates such authority.

Section 5-02 Administrative Officers. 

  1. The parish manager may appoint and set the salaries of those administrative officers that are determined by the parish manager to be necessary or reasonable for the effective, efficient and proper administration of parish government, subject to appropriation of the governing authority;
  2. The parish manager may delegate duties to the administrative officers appointed in any manner that is necessary or reasonable for the effective, efficient and proper administration of parish government, and otherwise in compliance with applicable state and federal law.

Council Chairman Bill Dawson, a no-show on Thursday after regularly attended Strategic Planning, convened a Committee of the Whole to consider ABA’s proposal.  Three of his colleagues (those who attended Strategic Planning) each seemed to favor seating a Charter Commission on Thursday.  Benny Johnson enumerated three options for the hot potato dumped in the Council’s lap by ABA. 1) Take no action at all; 2) Convene a Charter Commission; or 3) Adopt an ordinance placing ABA’s charter on the ballot as it reads.

“That’s our purview.  That’s what we were elected to do,” Johnson summarized.

A Better Ascension’s proposal is now, officially, the Parish Council’s project.

 

 

 

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