Parish Manager sales pitch omits discussion of ABA proposal

Monday’s Home Rule Charter Revision Committee endured nearly four hours of expert testimony/Q and A from a University of North Carolina professor and a 40-year veteran City/County Manager.  Part symposium, part sales pitch, Dr. Kimberly Nelson and Randall Reid had not reviewed Ascension’s current charter, nor A Better Ascension’s (ABA) proposal to abolish the parish presidency in favor of parish-manager governance.  Consideration of ABA’s actual proposal will have to wait as two more ABA experts are slated for the committee’s next meeting, May 21.

On May 3 the Parish Council extended the committee’s May 31 deadline, surreptitiously imposed so that committee recommendations might be made to the Parish Council in time to place items on the ballot in December.  25 years of Ascension Parish Home Rule, itself the product of a hard fought campaign over recalcitrant Police Jury proponents in the early 1990s, is under attack as inefficient, among other criticisms.

Four-term Ascension President Tommy Martinez (l) with two long term Gonzales mayors (Barney Arceneaux and Johnny Berthelot)

There’s the way it is…

“We’ve had that here,” former parish president Tommy Martinez said from his seat on the Charter Revision Committee.  “We’ve had the police jury form of government.  If they had six (of 11 jurors), they could do pretty much anything that they wanted to do.  I lived through that.”

If the police juror happened to be among the six-vote controlling majority “all the work would get done in your district.”

“The reason we changed,” Martinez remembered, “was because of that.  “I don’t see how we don’t revert back to that.”

If the expertise sought is localized to Ascension Parish governance one can do no better than Martinez, a four-term parish president and police jury veteran.

Dr. Kimberly Nelson

And there’s the way it oughta’ be (depending upon who you ask).  Dr. Kimberly Nelson works with local governments in North Carolina and trains aspiring city/county managers.

“Essentially, a police jury is a commission form of government,” countered Dr. Nelson.  “(It is) universally agreed upon (in government policy academic circles), it’s not a good form of government.”

According to National League of Cities:

Commission

Characteristics include:

  • Voters elect individual commissioners to a small governing board
  • Each commissioner is responsible for one specific aspect, such as fire, police, public works, health, finance
  • One commissioner is designated as chairman or mayor, who presides over meetings
  • The commission has both legislative and executive functions

The commission form of city government is the oldest form of government in the U.S., but exists today in less than 1% of cities. It typically occurs in cities with populations below 100,000, such as Sunrise, Florida and Fairview, Tennessee.

But County Manager governance is not the same.  While legislative and administrative power is unified under “the Board” (Parish Council in Ascension), there exists checks and balances.  The Council would “delegate executive authority to the manager (who) is the check.”  There is also the judiciary to “oversee issues that occur.”

“A manager is gonna always try and get the board to look at the big picture and keep their eyes focused on the best interests of the community; and not be self-interested in their part of the community,” she explained.

Randall Reid [foreground] of International County Manager Association

Randall Reid, ABA’s other expert, spent four decades as city/county manager in three states before hiring on with International City/County Manager Association (ICMA) where his job is to sell municipalities on good government done the ICMA way.  His hour-long slide show presentation touted all those high-minded virtues to which every civic-minded public official should aspire.  His organization would help in the search for Ascension’s parish manager, if ABA’s proposal gets to a ballot and becomes the law.

Tommy Martinez was around when Ascension’s police jury hired two parish managers, neither of whom worked out so well.  One was even from North Carolina “with all those credentials” recommended by ABA’s guest lecturers.

“He lasted about six months because he couldn’t take the pressure,” recalled Martinez.  “What works in North Carolina may not work in south Louisiana; a whole different breed, a different mentality.”

The other was fired for playing a round of golf during business hours even though he put in 70-hour work weeks.

“In any form of government you can have a faction form on the board,” conceded Dr. Nelson in reply.

The committee’s next meeting agenda (May 21) includes two more ABA experts.  With the following Monday a holiday, it is unclear when/if ABA’s actual proposal will be “thoroughly vetted” as desired by multiple Council members.  Just as murky, when recommendations might be expected from the Charter Revision Committee.

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