Council drops plan curtailing speaker rights

Wade McIntyre

DONALDSONVILLE – The Ascension Parish Council hastily dropped a proposed ordinance that would curtail the rights of speakers who address the council after numerous speakers blasted the council for attempting to take away basic public rights to address the council.

The proposed ordinance, which rose to the council through the Strategic Planning Committee after being requested by two unnamed councilmen, died at the Thursday regular meeting for lack of a motion.

The ordinance stated that “the governing authority of Ascension Parish has determined that additional procedures are necessary to govern the public comment period of Council, Council Committees and other Parish Boards and Commissions.”

The dropped ordinance also stated that speakers had to refrain from making accusatory or defamatory comments about individuals by name, or face losing the opportunity to continue addressing the council during the meeting.

In opposing the legislation, Burt Duplessis told the council freedom of speech was at issue.

“The people have the right to petition government and redress government,” he said. “To take away someone’s right to speak would be an injustice.”

Kathryn Goppelt said the proposed amendment would be used by elected officials “to censor the people” and turn the council into a mock court with the council chairman as an arbitrary judge.

Area resident Karen White called the proposal absurd, saying it was the duty of the council to listen to speakers for the full three minutes attentively. She called the First Amendment the most important right of citizens, and said it is unconstitutional to take anyone’s free speech away.

“If you don’t like it, you can step down,” she said.

Councilman Todd Lambert opposed the ordinance, he said, because a new law was unnecessary, as the council already had a procedure for speakers, both on the council and in the public.

Councilman George Valentine said the council chairman, under Robert’s Rules of Order, had all the power needed to deal with speaker issues.

“This is a good example of someone trying to do something they think is right that has gotten out of hand,” he said. “This is a bad ordinance.”

Councilman Benny Johnson said the proposed ordinance was an attempt to address people making false accusations that could not be substantiated.

In other business, the council:

• Introduced an ordinance to exercise its option to purchase the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center for $7.5 million per its lease-purchase agreement with the Lamar-Dixon Foundation.

• Approved a special election on the west side of the parish Oct. 17 in Lighting District No. 4. The election would authorize $25 per year on houses and $100 for businesses in that district for a period of ten years.

• Approved an amendment to the Parish Code of Ordinances that creates the position of Hearing Officer with authority to establish rules and regulations and levy fines and penalties for ordinance violations and public codes.

• Introduced an ordinance to encourage and ensure the preservation of historic sights in the parish by ensuring surrounding development is compatible and does not adversely affect the historic site.

• Adopted an ordinance providing for parish government collection of sales taxes on municipal annexed land.