Members of the Baton Rouge Metro Council had a chance to hash out some ongoing matters during an informal retreat Thursday.
The event, which included several hours of discussion and a shared lunch, allowed for some introspection, as members discussed how they wish to function in the new term and how they will handle the city-parish's business. It was something of a new-hire seminar for the three council members inaugurated last month as they had a chance to talk with department heads, financial heads and administrators about expense reports, open records law and other matters. None of the topics for discussion went to a vote Thursday, though some may return in a more formal meeting in the future.
Among the topics at hand: how to appoint representatives to various public boards such as parks and recreation, whether to form committees to discuss finances or taxation or capital improvements, and whether to appoint a vice mayor pro tem to run meetings when the pro tem is absent.
Councilman Trae Welch for several months has advocated for reinstating committees, arguing they allow the council to ask questions, deliberate and perform research on important city matters before they are brought to a vote. Other council members were cooler on the idea, generally retorting that they create another level of bureaucracy that winds up forcing everyone to repeat themselves in committee and then in council meetings.
The parish attorney also remarked that, as a practical matter, the council may have a hard time getting reports from city-parish departments. Staff is required by law to turn over information before a vote to comply with public advertising laws, but they may be less eager to shift up their deadlines for several weeks for a simple committee meeting, warned Lea Anne Batson.
Councilman Matt Watson didn't support bringing back the capital improvements or finance and executive committees but advanced a proposal to create a committee that looks at taxing issues, specifically local matters related to Louisiana's industrial tax exemption program.
The council also reconsidered whether to appoint a vice mayor pro tem, a discussion that had previously been postponed when councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, who had sought the job, said the Metro Council has shown a continued propensity to vote down racial and party lines. Thursday, she repeated the sentiment and reiterated that she had been speaking about the vote for pro tem. Scott Wilson won that post with the backing of seven while republicans; Collins-Lewis lost with the votes from five black democrats. The issue was inconclusive Thursday, with Wilson telling his colleagues that he'd accept a vote for a vice pro tem in the future if one of them wants to make a motion.
Council members, including Watson and Dwight Hudson, also asked several questions about making sure they are appointing responsible people to various local boards and commissions. Batson told the council that the city-parish doesn't perform criminal background checks on applicants due to time constraints. If an applicant who has previously had contact with city-parish staff is known to be irrational or even unsafe, workers can bring their concerns to the council without breaking slander laws, Batson remarked.