Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said she is stepping down from the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council before the end of the year, which will force the city-parish to hold a special election to fill her seat.
She’s leaving a few weeks earlier than scheduled, she said, because she’s concerned her colleagues on the council will not honor her wishes to appoint her designee to carry out the remainder of her term and will instead choose someone who does not have the best interest of her district at heart.
Marcelle said she believes some of her fellow council members are being swayed by outside pressure to vote against her suggested replacement, businessman Isaiah Marshall.
“If they’re being pressured to not vote for Isaiah, then they can pick their own candidate,” Marcelle said. “Why would I take that chance? Let’s let the people speak.”
In October, Marcelle won an open seat in the state House of Representatives and is expected to be sworn in Jan. 11. The Baton Rouge Plan of Government states that if a council member leaves office with less than a year before the end of his or her term, the remaining members of the council vote to fill the seat. If the council member leaves with more than a year left in the term, then a special election is called and the voters decide.
Marcelle’s council seat expires at the end of December 2016, meaning that if she left her council seat in January, it would be just under a year. Traditionally, exiting council members have selected their replacements and the rest of the council has honored their choices.
However, Marcelle’s choice proved controversial when she announced last month that she wanted the council to vote in Marshall to replace her for the remainder of her term. Marshall came in third against Marcelle in the council election in 2008. In recent years, Marshall served as the chairman of the Capital Area Transit System board of directors, but various groups and officials — including council members — pressured him to resign because of concerns about failing to report a theft of public funds from the agency by another CATS board member to law enforcement.
When Marcelle first announced Marshall as her choice to fill the remainder of her term, most council members said they planned to honor her wishes, including some who had been critical of Marshall’s performance at CATS.
More recently, a few council members have expressed a newfound resistance to appointing Marshall. Councilman Buddy Amoroso said he can’t support Marshall because of new information he’s learned about past Ethics Board violations, and Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel is asking the council to use a process that would allow residents of the district interested in the seat to submit their names for consideration.
Marcelle said she’s frustrated in particular with Baton Rouge Business Report Publisher Rolfe McCollister, who recently wrote an editorial urging the council to vote against Marshall. Marcelle said she believes McCollister has been reaching out to the conservatives on the council to pressure them not to support Marshall.
“The pressure is coming from Rolfe McCollister,” Marcelle said, adding she has never received a phone call from McCollister and has never known him to have an interest in her north Baton Rouge district.
If council members reject her choice, they could choose any resident of District 7 to hold her seat for the next year. Rather than risk the wrong person being selected by the Metro Council, Marcelle said, she’d rather let the residents vote.
McCollister said he had only casually spoken to three council members, one of whom reached out to him. He said he has as much a right as she does to express his views about issues affecting the parish.
“Her district is not her fiefdom; it is part of our city-parish,” McCollister said. He also said it was irresponsible of Marcelle to force a special election, which could cost upward of tens of thousands of dollars.
“Funds could be better used to help people in our community than her manipulating a special election,” he said, adding that he would like to see the bill for the election sent to Marcelle.
City-parish officials said it was unclear how much a special election would cost, because it would depend on what items are on the ballot besides the District 7 council race.
Amoroso, who was among the council members who initially said they would support Marcelle’s wishes by appointing Marshall, said this week that he has learned since then about unresolved issues Marshall has with the Louisiana Ethics Administration.
Marshall owes $13,660 in unpaid fines to the Ethics Board and the Attorney General’s Office related to failing to file campaign financial disclosure reports when he ran for Metro Council.
“My opinion is that the ethics laws are the foundation of transparency,” Amoroso said. “There’s no way I can vote for him, because this is a total lack of transparency. He violated ethics laws and reporting requirements.”
Banks-Daniel also previously said she supported appointing Marshall to fill out the rest of Marcelle’s term. But she is now asking the Metro Council to vote on opening the process up to applicants.
She said she decided to pursue opening the process up to other people after she spoke with “several pastors in District 7 who had stated that they were not consulted on the selection of Mr. Marshall.” She also said she received at least one email objecting to Marshall’s appointment.
Marshall did not return a phone call seeking comment. But in a Facebook post, he defended his record at CATS. Marshall was pressured to resign after The Advocate reported that board member Montrell McCaleb had wired money from CATS accounts to pay some of his private bills. The Advocate later reported that Marshall knew about the theft for two months before the police were notified. CATS didn’t notify law enforcement of the theft until after the news media reported it.
Marshall said in the Facebook post that the reason he delayed reporting the theft was because he wanted time to personally fact find it to determine if there was further staff involvement.
“This wasn’t a cover-up, I didn’t commit a crime,” Marshall wrote. “I was seeking all parties involved.”
A date for a special election to fill Marcelle’s unexpired term won’t be called until after Marcelle resigns. Spring elections are scheduled for March and April, but qualifying for the March election ends on Friday.
Ronnie Edwards is also leaving the Metro Council because she was elected to a legislative seat and is expected to leave the council Jan. 11. She did not return a phone call for this story and has not publicly stated who she would like to see fill her seat.