Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome was asked to intervene during the Wednesday meeting of the Metro Council when its members couldn't reach an accord on an appointment.
The council had to vote one of its own to a mayor's committee that will evaluate applications for the Industrial Tax Exemption Program. The state ITEP allows companies to forgo some property taxes if they make certain capital expenditures, but earlier this year the governor paved the way for local tax collecting agencies to have a say in whether the exemptions should be awarded.
When it came time last month to appoint a council member to the mayor's advisory committee, the council split along party lines. Absent members prevented either side from securing seven votes for either Democrat LaMont Cole or Republican Matt Watson. The same scenario appeared likely to happen again Wednesday, with Democrat Erika Green and Republican Scott Wilson both absent.
Metro Council deadlocked down party lines during a Tuesday vote to appoint a representative to a new committee to evaluate industrial tax exem…
"Based on my math, none of us have the vote tonight, so let's not play around with it," Cole said, requesting the item be deferred.
Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis asked Broome, if she was watching the meeting on TV, to step in. Collins-Lewis requested the mayor's staff to text Broome and ask that both councilmen be allowed on the committee.
Before the end of the meeting, the parish attorney and the mayor's chief administrative officer informed the council they could have two seats on the mayor's committee, so Cole and Watson were both appointed.
In its final meeting of the year, the council also had to populate various boards and commissions that run volunteer fire departments, the historic preservation commission and other small agencies. The airport commission proved troublesome, and Councilwoman Chauna Banks unloaded on her colleagues when several declined to reinstate current commissioner Cleve Dunn Jr.
"Shame on you guys. Shame on you. It's wrong," Banks said. "This is an honorable man. … I believe this is retaliation."
Dunn was an outspoken proponent of a national search for a permanent airport director. Banks believed that Dunn, who was not present, was being punished for that position. The vote fell mostly along racial lines, she pointed out, though Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg, herself an advocate for a national search, noted that she voted with the black Democrat in support of Dunn.
Other votes went for Tommy Pittenger, nominated from the floor by Councilman Chandler Loupe. The councilman had publicly supported Pittenger when he was reinstated as an attorney in 2015 after being disbarred in 2009 with business partner E. Eric Guirard for running a firm that rewarded nonlawyers for settling cases as quickly as possible.
Neither Dunn nor Pittenger carried enough votes, so the matter was automatically deferred. Another seat on the airport commission, vacated by Andrew McCandless, also remains empty after the Metro Council could not decide between Dunn and Kelly Balfour.
However, the council members were able to fill most other roles, including appointing Watson and Cole to the ITEP committee.
The committee — which will also include one representative each from the mayor's office, the East Baton Rouge School Board and the Sheriff's Office — will create a set of criteria for evaluating tax exemption requests. Faith-based advocacy group Together Baton Rouge has forcefully asked that the criteria, called a matrix, come back to the full council for debate and approval. They repeated the request Wednesday and the council agreed, making that the condition of Watson and Cole's appointment.
"Good government is transparent," Together Baton Rouge leader Edgar Cage said.
Watson agreed with the recommendation.
"No one's trying to do anything without you seeing it," he said.
"We're watching," Cage responded, to laughs from the gallery.
Councilman Dwight Hudson was uncomfortable voting two council members to the committee on such short notice. The council was "shooting from the hip here," he remarked.
How will the School Board and Sheriff's Office feel now that the Metro Council has twice as many voices on the mayor's committee, he wondered aloud.
The committee has no authority to grant tax exemptions, parish attorney Lea Anne Batson said. It exists only to advise and make recommendations to the Metro Council. The council, School Board and Sheriff's Office will each make the final decision whether to award an exemption on their own property taxes.
Hudson said that, realistically, the mayor's committee "will have an impact across the board" and on various agencies, even if it's only officially chartered to counsel the Metro Council.
However, his colleagues and Chief Administrative Officer Darryl Gissel urged the item move forward. Freiberg worried that other parishes may have a competitive advantage if they can tell businesses what to expect while East Baton Rouge is still figuring out how its own tax exemptions will work.
"We have taken far too long," she said.
Cole and Watson were elected with the support of all except Hudson. Green and Wilson were absent.