Voters to decide whether to expand panels
East Baton Rouge Parish voters will decide Oct. 22 whether to expand the boards that oversee the parish’s parks department and library system by designating seats for Baker, Central and Zachary.
Supporters say the change is necessary to ensure that all parts of the parish are represented fairly; opponents say it is unnecessary and risks injecting parochial politics into boards that already are functioning well in serving the parish as a whole.
The proposals on the ballot are to amend the Plan of Government to change the composition of the East Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission and the Library Board of Control.
BREC has six members appointed by the Metro Council and one representative each from the Mayor-President’s Office, Planning and Zoning Commission and East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
The Library Board of Control has seven members, all of whom are appointed by the Metro Council to at-large seats.
If the amendments to the Plan of Government are approved, each board would get three new members — one each from Baker, Zachary and Central, as recommended by the mayors of those three cities.
The effort to place the amendments on the ballot was spearheaded by Councilman Scott Wilson, who represents the Central area.
“The bottom line is we need more representation from across the parish,” Wilson said. “Look at the Library Board. Nobody north of Florida Boulevard is serving on the Library Board.”
He said people in the fast-growing northern portion of the parish pay taxes and deserve more representation on such boards.
Wilson and Councilman Trae Welch, who represents the Baker and Zachary areas, also noted that the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board has a representative on BREC, while Central, Baker and Zachary, which have independent school systems, do not have BREC representatives.
Library Board Chairwoman Kizzy Payton said the board deals with all areas of the parish fairly.
“We don’t necessarily look at what’s in our back yard or what’s around the corner from us,” Payton said. “We look at how we can improve library services for the whole parish. There hasn’t been any favoritism toward one area or any situation where we’ve neglected a branch.”
She said she doesn’t know where other board members reside because the issue never comes up.
Payton said she would not want to see the board change to where people might be inclined to look only to the parochial interests of the jurisdiction that appoints them.
“I would hope if the public decides to go in this direction that the individuals who are appointed would be openminded and join the Library Board in its initiatives” to serve the interests of the entire parish, Payton said.
BREC Chairman Bill Benedetto said the parish parks commission has two members who reside in the Baker-Zachary-Central area and usually has at least two people from that part of the parish.
“I’m not sure why this is necessary,” Benedetto said. “BREC has worked very well for the last 65 years and is considered one of the top recreation and parks commissions in the country.”
Benedetto said he has concerns that if Baker, Central and Zachary get designated representatives, others would seek to be appointed based on the Metro Council districts in which they reside and parochial politics could come into play.
“My contention is the reason that BREC has been so successful is that, for the most part, we’ve been able to keep politics out of the commission,” Benedetto said. “Everyone serves at large and we, as a commission, make decisions based on what’s best for the parish as a whole.”
Mayor-President Kip Holden’s chief administrative officer, John Carpenter, has spoken out against expanding BREC and the Library Board, saying it’s bad policy to give designated representation only to some areas.
He said further that it would give disproportionate voting strength to three cities which make up less than 13 percent of the parish’s population combined.
If voters approve amending the Plan of Government to change the composition of BREC’s board, it could face a legal challenge.
An attorney for BREC, Murphy J. Foster III, has said he does not believe the Metro Council can act to change the composition of the commission without the approval of the state Legislature because BREC was created by state statute.
However, Parish Attorney Mary Roper has argued that legislative approval is not necessary if voters opt to amend the Plan of Government in a parishwide vote.
Roper has asked for an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office on the issue, which has not yet been rendered.
Benedetto said a legal challenge would “no doubt come from some place” if BREC’s membership is changed without the approval of the state Legislature.
The amendments will appear on the ballot Oct. 22. Early voting, which started Saturday, ends Oct. 15.