Hughes, Savoy suggest charter changes

Aaron Looney

Two former parish government officials both told the Home Rule Charter Commission Monday that there were aspects of the parish’s form of government that needed to either be clarified or changed altogether.

Former Parish President Ronnie Hughes and former Parish Council Chairman Jerry Savoy each fielded questions from committee members during the lengthy meeting, held in the Parish Council chambers in Gonzales.

Hughes, who did not seek a second term in office after being elected to serve in 2002, told the committee that during his term he took notes on things in the charter that he felt needed to be addressed.

Hughes also said that many nearby parishes that lie along the Mississippi River “have things in their charters that we don’t have.”

Savoy, who ran unsuccessfully for parish president in last year’s election after serving on the council for 13 years, said that he felt little needed to be changed in the charter, but that certain aspects needed to be clarified.

“The council never pushed for the charter to be changed,” Savoy said. “It’s not that broken. There were a couple of sections that were omitted and some sections that could be cleaned up in their verbiage.”

Splitting his discussion into aspects of the legislative and executive branches of government, Hughes said that he feels the legislative branch - the parish council - needs to have up to two full-time secretaries answerable to the council to help research matters and prepare council members for meetings.

“Our charter does not give them that opportunity,” Hughes said. “They (council members) are all part time. It’s important that they have someone that can do the research for them to help them be prepared to create laws and understand the budget process so they can appropriate money properly.”

Hughes said he felt much of the conflicts in the past 12 years could have been avoided if the council had its own dedicated secretarial department.

Savoy agreed with Hughes that the council needs its own secretarial staff, but disagreed with an issue Hughes discussed involving extending the amount of time a parish president has to veto a decision by the council.

“You need to keep that time as short as we can,” Savoy said. “You get the issue out on the table. You had time to research it and do your homework. If the president vetoes it, you should already have an understanding about the issue. Unless something new comes up, I’m not going to change my mind.”

Savoy also said he felt the balance of powers “is pretty much there” in the charter.

Another aspect Hughes suggested the commission look at is changing the structure of the parish council, by either lowering the number of council members or by having some council members serve on an at-large basis.

“There are 11 council members and the parish president,” Hughes said. “That’s 12 that you have to try to get to agree and come together. That’s pretty much impossible nowadays. You need to set up an opportunity for a win-win between the two branches so that our citizens can have confidence that they’re trying to work together as much as they can while still maintaining that checks and balances system.”

Hughes said that while many argue having more representatives gives a broader range of representation, advances in technology and transportation make it easier for people living long distances from government headquarters to make their voices heard.

“You don’t need as many people on the legislative side, in my opinion,” Hughes said. “In my four years in office, you had two or three factions within the council. That’s normal in a way, because people won’t always agree. But when it gets to the point where it creates gridlock and lack of progress in the fastest growing parish in the state, something has to be done to get past that.”

Savoy said that in meeting with other governments in the state and country, he felt the problem lies in that parish government has never had a cohesive relationship between the executive and legislative branches.

“We never could get a good working council with a parish president,” Savoy said. “It’s about trust and building trust. The reason this argument comes up is from the disagreement that the parish residents have seen over the years. If we had a good bond and moved things forward with little to no heated discussion, that probably wouldn’t be an issue right now.”

Both Hughes and Savoy said there is no perfect answer as to what the size of the council should be.

Moving to an at-large system within the council would be difficult and would involve more campaigning for those positions, Hughes said. However, he felt that such a move would eliminate the focus on individual districts and put more people looking out for the needs of the parish as a whole. He suggested at least two at-large council representatives be considered.

Savoy said he was against the issue several years ago, but he felt parish government “has not moved toward the true meaning of ‘home rule charter.’’

“There’s still signs of police jury mentality.” Savoy said. “Maybe one or two at-large members may be able to break that up and get us over the hump. I wouldn’t be opposed one way or the other.”

When asked if he felt the council should be reduced, Savoy said he felt that a good ratio of representation would be one council representative to every 7,000 residents. Based on a parish population of 100,000 residents, that would call for 14 to 15 representatives.

Hughes also addressed the ability of an employee that has been terminated to go before a personnel review committee and possibly the parish council to get their job back.

“Politics gets involved in that process,” Hughes said.

Another controversial issue Hughes addressed was if the parish should take the operation of major drainage projects back under its wing. Amid a power struggle between Hughes and the East Ascension Drainage Commission, the commission voted last year not to renew its contract with the parish president to serve as the general manager of the district.

“You’re getting into politics there,” Hughes said when asked if he felt drainage should go under the parish’s auspices. He then suggested that the parish’s two drainage districts be abolished and that the parish take over all drainage operations.

Current Parish President Tommy Martinez is working on a proposal to bring his office back into control of major drainage issues on the parish’s east bank.

Calling the termination of the contract “a shame,” Savoy said that the commission felt at that time that it needed a full-time major drainage director to only handle those issues.

Savoy said he believed there was a specific reason why the issue was not addressed in the charter, and that the commission should investigate that reason if it chose to do so.

Savoy also suggested that the commission discuss possible changes to the pay structure for both the parish president and council. He suggested a mechanism to where the parish president’s salary would be structured similarly to that of the sheriff and superintendent of schools.

Committee chair Milton Clouatre said he has contacted the current council and Parish President Tommy Martinez asking for suggestions as to what issues they felt may need to be addressed in the charter. Clouatre said that as of Monday, only two people had responded – Martinez and Parish Councilman Kent Schexnaydre.

The committee will next meet Wednesday, Sept. 3 at 6 p.m.