East Baton Rouge voters could still decide whether to add three seats to the parish parks commission to represent Zachary, Baker and Central, despite a corresponding bill dying in the state Legislature this past session.
Baton Rouge Metro Councilman Scott Wilson said he initially thought that to change the makeup of the Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission, it would require both a vote of the public and approval by the Legislature.
But since the BREC bill died in a state Senate committee, Wilson said, he has been advised that he can continue to move forward with placing the item on the Oct. 22 primary election ballot.
Wilson said he expects that later this month, the Metro Council would consider ratifying the proposal and sending it to a parishwide vote.
Because East Baton Rouge Parish operates under a home rule charter, the legislative change is unnecessary, said Parish Attorney Mary Roper.
“They have to have a compelling state interest to pass a statute that will interfere with our home rule charter,” Roper said. “I see no compelling state interest.”
But BREC’s attorney, Murphy Foster III, disagrees on the grounds that BREC was created by state statute.
Foster said that even if voters approved the change, it would be ineffective, based on an opinion issued in 2006 by the state attorney general concluding that the state constitution takes precedence over home rule charters when there are inconsistencies.
“Reasonable minds can differ on exactly what the answer to the question is,” Foster said. “If the council were to go forth with it and send it to a vote, it would be challenged only if someone wanted to challenge it.”
Whether the vote would be challenged remains to be seen, but the effort to expand the membership of BREC’s governing board has run into strong opposition so far from Mayor-President Kip Holden and his administration as well as some BREC board members and volunteers.
Holden’s staff has argued that it’s bad policy to give only part of the parish designated representation. He’s also said the change, which would expand the board from nine to 12 members, would allow the three cities making up less than 13 percent of the parish population to wield disproportionately greater voting strength on the board.
BREC Board Chairman Bill Benedetto said the commission does not have a position on the current move to expand the board’s membership, but personally disagrees with adding three designated seats.
“If we start getting parochial, that really changes the dynamics of the whole BREC commission,” Benedetto said. “You run the risk of having politics getting involved in some of these decisions.”
He also said that since the Metro Council appoints BREC board members, they already have the power to ensure that members represent the areas of interest.
Benedetto said he did not know if BREC would attempt to challenge the decision to move forward with a vote.
“If it gets on the ballot and it passes, somebody would probably challenge it,” he said.
Baker Mayor Harold Rideau said BREC has been slow to deliver park projects promised to the northern part of the parish since the parks plan was adopted.
“If you say you’re going to pass a bond and spend X dollars, and then years later you haven’t spent it, wouldn’t you get suspicious?” Rideau said. “Why wouldn’t you want us on the board unless you have something to hide?”
Zachary Mayor David Amrhein, who’s been in office since January, said he believes BREC has been “very fair” with him so far.
But he said that adding the designated seats would “be a nice way to enforce everyone’s understanding that we’re all working for the same common goal.”
Benedetto said that since 2006, $23 million has been spent or is currently being spent on parks in Baker, Zachary and Central.
“From my perspective, I think we have done very well,” Benedetto said. “We’ve also always had at least two commissioners from the northern part of the parish, some years, we’ve had three or four.”