A tube of lipstick, a pair of glasses and a popcorn ball were all that remained at Democrats' Metro Council seats Wednesday night after the group stormed out of the council meeting and forged the latest chapter in partisan and racial arguments among council members.
The dramatics came after an hour-and-a-half of debate over the embattled East Baton Rouge Council on Aging. While voters in November 2016 approved a dedicated property tax for the agency, the Metro Council was expected to vote Wednesday on levying the tax and on the agreement between the city-parish and the nonprofit agency to govern the tax.
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Some council members were skeptical about proceeding with either measure before the Louisiana Legislative Auditor publicly releases an investigation focused on the Council on Aging's campaign tactics. The agency's quest for a property tax to more than double its annual budget raised both legal and ethical questions.
On Wednesday evening, most Republicans on the Metro Council indicated they wanted a 30-day delay to let the audit become public before giving a green light to the tax agreements. Republicans said they were not trying to prevent the tax from being collected, but they wanted to first ensure the agency had responsible spending plans, corrective actions and taxpayer protections.
Their delay would not have pushed back the timeline already in place for the Council on Aging to start receiving the tax revenue in 2018. The Council on Aging would not lose any money or revenue in the interim.
But dozens of Council on Aging clients and staffers packed into the council chambers and questioned whether the Metro Council members were unwilling to follow the will of the voters. Some spoke of the care and services they receive through the Council on Aging and said they want the nonprofit to receive more money to help more seniors.
"These seniors really need them, just like I need them," said Frances Johnson, who described sharing her story of surviving breast cancer. "That's my family, they're like my extended family."
Despite most Metro Council members trying to distance the debate away from Council on Aging Executive Director Tasha Clark Amar, the fierce controversy surrounding her loomed over the debate. Amar has spent the past few weeks in a public back-and-forth with the family of the late Helen Plummer who alleges Amar unduly influenced their elderly grandmother into leaving Amar in charge of her estate.
Plummer died in early March, and her will specified that Amar was to receive $500 a month for the next 20 years to oversee a trust for Plummer's great-grandchildren and grandniece. Amar denied any wrongdoing but also asked to withdraw from overseeing the estate and the trust after the story gained media attention; a judge granted the request last week.
State District Judge Donald Johnson removed Council on Aging Executive Director Tasha Clark-…
At Wednesday's meeting, audience members rushed to Amar's defense and complimented her management of the agency. They asked Metro Council members not to let the stories about Amar affect their judgment on the tax.
"I don't believe there's any question about the value of the services," said Metro Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg, who is a Republican. "I believe the staff works very, very hard, and tirelessly. I don't think you heard me say one time this is about the director. … I am concerned about the audit and the action plan that comes from the audit."
Helen Plummer's family called Tuesday for "an overhaul, not oversight" of the East Baton Rou…
The Democrats and one Republican, Trae Welch, were sympathetic to the philosophy of immediately needing to follow through on the will of the voters. They said they wanted to vote Wednesday to approve the tax agreements.
Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks called Amar to the podium, and held a spiritual pep rally for her as she recited Bible verses while many in the crowd murmured in agreement.
"It is well," Banks recited. "I want you to know it is well. Not because you're perfect, nobody is perfect. But because God knew when he chose you that you would make errors in this process, like we all do. But that's why he went to the cross…."
Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wilson then asked Banks to stay on topic, and she implored Amar to keep serving seniors.
The Metro Council agreed earlier in the meeting to delay for 30 days the city-parish's cooperative endeavor agreement to govern the tax. But Democrats said they could not understand the benefit of waiting another 30 days to agree to levy the tax.
"What is 30 days going to do?" asked Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, a Democrat. "What is 'taxpayer protection?'"
The vote then failed to reach the necessary 7 votes needed on the motion to levy the tax. Collins-Lewis, Banks, Erika Green, LaMont Cole and Trae Welch voted in favor. Freiberg, Wilson, Buddy Amoroso, Matt Watson and Dwight Hudson voted against it. Tara Wicker and Chandler Loupe were absent.
As Wilson tried to call for a vote on deferring the tax levy for 30 days, the Council on Aging supporters surged out of the meeting. The Democrats on the council picked up their purses and folders and followed them, leaving the meeting without the necessary seven council members to conduct business.
"It is extremely unfortunate we were placed in a position to not continue the business of City Parish Government," wrote Green, Banks, Cole and Collins-Lewis in a statement sent late Wednesday night. None of them returned phone calls after the meeting. "The integrity of the will of the people was being challenged by an attempt to prevent a millage from going forward as approved by YOU, the voters in November of 2016. We could no longer sit and allow democracy to be compromised under our watch, on this day. We will continue to stand with the people, protect the democratic process and support a free and fair election.”
The Democrats' walkout pushes back the tax's timeline by at least 60 days. The tax now must go through a second cycle of being advertised and announced before the Metro Council can vote on it again. Wilson called it sad, saying the walkout also affected other Metro Council agenda items. One of those was $1.3 million to renovate a property for the Council on Aging.