HRC Revision Committee pores over Article IV

Halen Doughty

At the Monday night meeting, the Home Rule Charter Revision Committee plowed through the rest of Article IV of the HRC, after suspending much of the discussion at last week’s abbreviated meeting. While several sections of the article were approved without change, members were hung up on organizational charts and the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Members picked up where they left off last Monday with Section 04, which details compensation for parish council members. It was noted that currently council members receive the highest pay allowed under state law. Committee member and former-parish president Tommy Martinez pointed out that the maximum pay only increases about once every ten years, but council members must vote their raise if it goes up at the state level. He made a motion to allow the council pay to increase automatically when state law allows, which would prevent members from having to vote for their own raises. The motion passed without objection.

In Section 12 of Article IV, members delved into the Powers in General of the Governing Authority, or the parish council. The discussion began with members addressing the lack of reports from the administration at committee meetings. Jeff Pettit of the Ascension Citizens Group noted that when council members request information from the administration at these meetings, they are often told that it will be provided later. However, when and if the information is provided, it takes place outside of a public meeting, and residents are not afforded the opportunity to comment.

The conversation quickly turned to the question of who answers to whom within parish government. Questions were raised as to whether the council could require department heads to provide reports at meetings without the approval of the parish president. That’s when the topic of a parish organizational chart came up.

Committee member and parish council chairman Bill Dawson began the discussion by noting that council members and other parish employees should understand the chain of command within government. A recent vote of the parish council failed to create an organizational chart on a 5-4 vote. The possibility of adding an organizational chart to the list of things a parish president must provide to the council was brought up.

Some members noted that adding an organizational chart to the parish president's responsibilities would be more appropriate in Article III, which outlines the duties of the parish president. A motion was approved without objection to add that requirement to Article III Section 03 of the charter.

Another issue Pettit brought to light was the power of the council to levy a tax without a vote of the people. Two such instances have recently gone before the council, when taxes were levied to pay for a new 911 call center and to fund juvenile detention centers. Both were passed by the council without a public vote. Pettit noted that when it comes to raising taxes, the people should have a say in the matter.

Committee member and councilwoman Terri Casso noted that raising taxes is a difficult decision for anyone to make, and it's one voters often shoot down. She noted that in these instances the state legislature gave that authority to local governments to levy the tax and ensure these vital resources could be adequately funded. She said this is not something the council does regularly, as all other revenue-raising measures are put on the ballot.

Casso went on to say that elections are costly, and having a public vote on every matter would be expensive and time-consuming. She noted that in a representative democracy, there are times when the council has to make these kinds of decisions. After much discussion on the matter, the issue was tabled pending more consideration at a later date.

The Planning and Zoning Commission was a hot topic at the April 16 meeting. Constituents spoke out calling for the abolition of the commission, saying elected officials are the ones who should handle development since they answer to voters. Denise Drago of Prairieville spoke against the commission and noted that the commission often turns a deaf ear to public input, as they cannot be voted out like council members.

Council member Wade Petite echoed that sentiment, saying he would like to alter the charter to make the recommendations of the P&Z advisory. That would mean an ordinance would have to be passed by the council to enact the recommendations from the commission, giving more oversight in development and allowing voters to be heard.

A motion was passed to change the language of the charter to no longer require the council to establish a Planning and Zoning Commission and to reduce the authority of the commission, giving the final say on development issues to the parish council. The proposed amendment to the charter will be vetted by the parish attorney before being added to the final roster of recommended changes to the HRC.

The proposed revisions to the HRC will be added to the list that will be presented to the parish council once the committee finishes its review of the document. The council will then get its chance to go over the proposals and decide which of the amendments will be put on the ballot.

The next meeting of the Home Rule Charter Revision Committee will be Monday, April 23, at 5 p.m. in the Ascension Parish Courthouse in Gonzales.

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