A Better Ascension pushes to put parish manager proposal on the ballot

Halen Doughty

What would local government look like without a parish president at the helm? A local group believes it would be a welcome change that could end the good ole boys club of politics where money talks louder than voters.

Members of A Better Ascension (ABA) said they’re doing everything they can to get a change to the home rule charter on the ballot for voters. That means Ascension residents could decide whether to keep the parish president-parish council system currently in place or implement a new system in which the council would appoint a qualified parish manager.

Under ABA's proposal, a set of qualifications would be established to ensure the new parish manager can handle a multi-million dollar budget and the large staff that keeps the parish running. Those qualifications would include a master's degree in either business management or public administration and at least five years at the executive level in county or parish government. The candidate could also not have recently held an elected office or be tied to political groups. ABA noted the parish could launch a nationwide search for a parish manager and not be limited to Ascension residents.

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The group said they want to take politics out of the equation. Damian Kerek with ABA noted that name recognition and money are leading factors for getting a candidate into office. The last parish president’s race, he said, cost about a million dollars. That means the people who win elections simply have the most money, not the most qualifications for the job. With a parish manager system, it becomes more about which person is most suited for the position.

I think one of the things that differentiates itself from the election process is you take the popularity contest out of the election and you replace that with a set of qualifications,” said Kerek.

Kerek said their plan is about creating a vision for the parish that is not tied to the four-year election cycle. ABA noted the one thing that most parish presidents have in common is that they out raised their opponents two to one. Sixty-seven percent of those funds, they say, come from outside the parish. Their concern is that once someone takes office, they are immediately in the pockets of their donors and bound to push certain issues in return for massive campaign donations.

"When people get donations and they get votes, then they automatically start owing somebody for something once they get elected," said J Hudson with 3 Strategies, which helps spread ABA's message to the public. "This parish manager can't get involved in elections. There's an ethical standard in there that stops them from being involved in the campaigns of other people so they can do their job day in and day out managing the parish."

Jeff Pettit with the Ascension Citizens Group isn’t convinced. Because the council would decide who would become the parish manager, he said politics would inevitably still be involved. He added that if this proposal comes to pass, citizens will lose their right to vote for the chief executive in the parish. He also pointed out the veto power held by the parish president would be lost, meaning there would be fewer checks and balances in local government.

The system is not broken,” said Pettit. “Our three-part system of government has worked for over 200 years in this country. What ABA wants to do is eliminate one of the three parts of government – the executive branch.”

Pettit noted without a parish president, the council chairman would be in complete control of what gets put on the agenda for council meetings and hence what is debated and voted upon. Since the legislative branch – the council in this case – has the fiscal authority, the purse strings would be entirely controlled by the chairman.

But Kerek said he doesn’t see it that way. He said while voters would sacrifice their vote for that position, they would gain a set of qualifications that are not currently in place. As far as the council, he said voters will still be able to vote out their councilman, meaning the public would still have a voice in the matter.

Hudson said that while voters would not directly elect a parish manager, there is a committee that would nominate candidates for the parish council to choose among. The five-person committee would be made up of representatives from local businesses, Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, Ascension Parish Public School, and a representative from the West Bank of the parish. Hudson said those people will be responsible for the search and vetting of candidates. If the council does not select a candidate from the committee's nominations, the search starts over until the right person is found.

Jeremy Epps with ABA said having business leaders involved in the nominating process will be helpful because business owners are familiar with the hiring process and have experience in going over resumes and qualifications. Hudson added that having nominations from both the council and the school system ensures there is a balance of both business and nonbusiness people involved in making the recommendations.

Of course, there are those who have their reservations about allowing a small group to select a parish manager. Opponents say this would put business leaders in control of who runs the parish. Since corporate interests tend to differ from those of residents, it's a big concern for some. Pettit called this business and industry driven plan an attempted corporate takeover of Ascension Parish.

ABA argues that a parish manager system runs on average ten percent more efficient than a parish president system. Hudson said over the past ten years the parish budget has grown by 74 percent while the population has only grown roughly 40 percent. The school board, on the other hand, has grown its budget in line with the population growth. He said that's because the school board selects a qualified superintendent who can run the school system more efficiently than a politician.

"The school board has been managed better in that aspect, and we believe it's because they have a qualified person actually in charge," said Hudson.

Pettit questions the accuracy of the studies ABA cites. He said that for every example the organization gives of a successful parish manager system, there are just as many examples of corruption, which he said goes down to human nature.

It seems convenient timing for these discussions to crop up, especially with the current parish president facing a bribery indictment. Some have raised concerns that the parish manager idea has only come in response to the recent political scandal. But the members of ABA assert their proposal has nothing to do with the current situation. Epps said they began having these conversations at a crawfish boil before the last parish president election was even held.

Pettit remains skeptical. He said he has not seen the members of ABA at parish council meetings or in the community prior to the start of this proposal. He claimed their involvement began with the home rule charter change.

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Where have these guys been?” Pettit asked. “They claim to be leaders in the community, but what have they led?”

Over the past year, ABA has held three public meetings on the parish manger proposal throughout the parish. They said they listened to the ideas of voters and amended their proposal to reflect the public's concern. ABA is now working to get approval from the state bond commission to put the proposal on the ballot. Another requirement to put the issue to vote is to release the plan to the public and allow a period for voters to familiarize themselves with the change ahead of an election, which could be held in December if all goes according to plan.

That would mean, however, that the parish council would not vote on whether or not to put the proposal on the ballot. ABA attempted to get the proposal on the ballot last November, but the council wanted to take more time to look over the charter before making a decision.

Going through the state bond commission circumvents the council in that aspect, but Councilman Aaron Lawler said he’s not worried about that. He said he cannot deny residents the right to decide whether or not they wish to continue to elect a parish president. While the councilman said he is not personally taking a position on the proposal, he agrees that voters should be the ones to decide whether or not they want to implement a new system. He finds it ironic that some complain about losing their right to vote on the parish president, but then don't want to allow the public to vote on the proposal. Either way, he said the voters deserve a say in the matter.

It appears as though conversations about a change to the home rule charter are far from over. The controversial idea has sparked heated debates throughout the parish over the past year. Will the proposal make it on the ballot? Do voters want to implement a whole new system of local government? Only time will tell.

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