As mayor-president Sharon Weston Broome weighs her choices for the next Baton Rouge police chief, one Metro Council member is wondering if voters should decide who oversees the department.
The council member, Donna Collins-Lewis, leads a committee that's taking a close look at the city-parish Plan of Government, which is essentially East Baton Rouge's constitution. The panel held its first meeting recently, and in an interview afterward Collins-Lewis remarked that the community needs to question even the foundational principles of the local government.
The idea for the committee arose amid several questions surrounding the Plan of Government, including discussions of the mayor's authority to hire and fire the police chief, the role of Metro Council leadership and whether it might make sense to hire a professional manager to run local government operations.
Collins-Lewis suggested a top to bottom review of the city-parish's guiding document.
Should the city and the parish cease to be consolidated into one government, she wondered. Should Metro Council members serve full time? They all currently serve geographical districts, but might it make more sense to elect at-large representatives?
"These have been conversations that people have had," Collins-Lewis said.
Collins-Lewis didn't commit to backing any of the proposals but said the committee should consider its options as it dives into the rules that govern how local government operates. Ultimately the voters would have to decide whether to adopt proposed changes to the Plan of Government.
Councilman Chandler Loupe, when told of some of Collins-Lewis's proposed debates, said he was expecting more of a discussion of meeting rules than whether to make fundamental revisions to the Plan of Government.
"Those obviously would be very big changes for the city-parish," he said.
The city of Baton Rouge and the Parish of East Baton Rouge are governed as one unit. The person at the top is both the mayor of the city and the president of the parish, and the legislative body is the Metropolitan Council, rather than a city council and a separate parish council or police jury. In addition to the unincorporated areas that lie outside the city limits of Baton Rouge there are three municipalities — Baker, Central and Zachary — each with their own leaders that provide many government services to their respective residents.
Loupe thinks separating the city and parish government would be so legally tricky that he doesn't expect it to happen in his lifetime. Just figuring out how the taxes would be collected could be hard to untangle, he said.
Loupe said he'd be open to talking about consolidating some police functions between the sheriff's office and the various municipal forces, but doesn't favor making the Baton Rouge chief an elected position.
"First blush, no that's not a good idea," he remarked.
Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who serves on the committee with Collins-Lewis and Loupe has mixed views on possibly revising the Plan of Government.
On one hand, she said, residents have never been so interested in having a chance to be involved in the conversation about how to address policing. Yet she also wants a chief and a mayor-president who can get along, and the voters could elect two people who don't work well together.
"The jury's still out for me ... there's a lot to discuss on that."
The same applies to the idea of peeling the city and parish apart, Wicker said.
She said she realizes that some city residents don't think it's fair that folks who live outside the city get to cast ballots for their mayor. But Wicker wants to see financial projections and other statistics before deciding if everyone would be better off with or without a consolidated system.
The Plan of Government was officially adopted on Aug. 12, 1947. It has been amended since, but Collins-Lewis said leaders haven't given it a thorough review since 2007.
The Plan of Government study committee's first meeting involved largely routine business — introducing committee members, setting up a schedule and laying out the group's expectations.
In addition to the three council members, the mayor-president has a voice on the committee, as does the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, the LSU and Southern University law schools, the Baton Rouge NAACP chapter, the city-parish's finance and legal offices and the local federation of civic associations.
One item they appear likely to discuss is the position of police chief.
The Baton Rouge community was rocked Monday, July 24, 2017, with Carl Dabadie's announcement as Baton Rouge Police Chief.
Broome made dismissing former chief Carl Dabadie a plank in her campaign platform last year. But when she took office, civil service protections prevented her from outright firing him. He left voluntarily after a few months, implying a strained relationship with City Hall factored into the decision. The search is currently underway for a permanent replacement, who will also have civil service protections under the existing Plan of Government.
Some people have floated the idea of having a city manager run much of the day-to-day administration of the government. This professional, who would presumably be hired by the Metro Council, would assume some of the mayor-president's responsibilities, which are now enshrined in the Plan of Government. Broome's transition team weighed the pros and cons of such an arrangement when she took office.
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The Metro Council has also brought up issues related to the Plan of Government in the past year. In January, the group elected Scott Wilson to serve as pro tem, which means he runs the council meetings. Collins-Lewis, who lost the vote, said it was a "sad day" that once again the council split along racial and party lines.
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In the months since then, Wilson has sought to strictly enforce rules on when council members may speak, discouraging or prohibiting them from speaking beyond their allotted time or ceding their time to each other. He has said they need to make sure they have time to attend to all the business at hand.
While the pro tem position is established in the Plan of Government, meeting rules are currently laid out in the Code of Ordinances.
Collins-Lewis told her committee she would like to review one chapter of the 11-chapter Plan of Government each month, beginning with a December 6 meeting at 1:30 p.m. in the Metro Council chambers in City Hall.
The first chapter deals with general matters. The mayor-president and Metro Council are addressed in chapters two through four, and police and personnel are chapters six and nine. Public works, planning and zoning, firefighters, and city-parish finances are also discussed at length.
Winston Decuir, who represents Southern University's law school, and Nancy Curry, who represents the Federation of Greater Baton Rouge Civic Associations, asked for material that would help them determine why the Plan of Government has been amended in the past to help guide the committee's current efforts.