LIVINGSTON — Livingston Parish officials are divided over whether parish voters should approve five proposed changes to the parish’s Home Rule Charter.
Parish President Layton Ricks went before the Denham Springs City Council on Monday to urge people to vote against the amendments, while 15 miles away in the Town of Livingston, the Parish Council urged people to support them.
Ricks said the five charter commission recommendations the Parish Council chose to put on the Dec. 6 ballot are designed to limit his power and “blur the lines” even further between the parish’s two frequently feuding branches.
“The propositions are all slanted to resolve issues that the current council has with my administration, not the charter,” Ricks said in a written statement to The Advocate. “Should the parish ever consider amendments to the charter? Maybe, but these changes should address the needs of the people of the parish, not the quarrels and disputes of elected officials grappling over authority.”
Council Chairman Ricky Goff, speaking at a regularly called Parish Council meeting Monday that Ricks did not attend, said the proposed amendments are aimed at ensuring future parish councils and presidents have a solid legal framework that encourages them to work together, rather than arguing over “gray areas” in the charter.
“Your parish president — and I’m going to call him out — needs to start giving both sides of the story,” Goff said.
The amendments, if approved, would make the following changes to the parish’s Home Rule Charter:
1. Give the Parish Council’s clerk seven days, instead of three, to forward adopted ordinances to the parish president for signature or veto.
2. Clarify that unbudgeted contracts must receive Parish Council approval before being signed by the parish president.
3. Allow the Parish Council to create a parish legal department in addition to, or instead of, receiving legal advice from the District Attorney’s Office.
4. Increase the minimum requirements for the parish finance director to include governmental accounting experience.
5. Align parish budgeting practices with the Louisiana Local Government Budget Act so that, if the council and president cannot agree on a budget, the parish must operate on half of the prior year’s budget until an agreement is reached.
In his written statement, Ricks expressed the most concern about the proposed amendments to the parish’s legal representation and budgeting practices.
Ricks said he opposes the proposed change to the budgeting process because it “would force parish government to operate for up to six months on 50 percent of the previous year’s budget” if the council and president could not agree.
The charter currently provides that, if the council fails to timely adopt a budget, the parish president’s proposed budget is considered adopted — a provision that went into effect for 2014 after the council’s budget adoption ordinance arrived late to the president’s desk.
Goff, the council chairman, said the proposed amendment changes nothing about the budgeting process unless the Parish Council is faced with a presidential veto it cannot muster the two-thirds vote needed to override.
“What changes is that this would require everyone to come back to the table and work it out, instead of allowing one person to dictate the parish budget,” Goff said.
As for the parish legal department, Ricks said in his statement that he opposes that amendment because “the charter reserves solely for the president” the authority to oversee all departments and agencies of parish government.
Creating a parish legal department also could create more internal conflict by having the parish represented by both the District Attorney’s Office and a separately appointed legal adviser at the same time, Ricks said.
But Goff said the amendment could save the parish money by allowing the council to hire a dedicated parish attorney to handle noncontroversial cases for a set salary, reserving only the most contested cases for special counsel.
“Tonight, right now, your parish president — because I didn’t vote for him — is at Denham Springs City Hall giving his opinion that these propositions should not pass,” Goff said. “I was hoping that he would stand at this podium tonight and we all could discuss these propositions so people could see the pros and cons, instead of listening to one side and not hearing the other.”
The parish president’s advocacy against the amendments did not come without warning. When the Charter Review Commission disintegrated in April, with four of its 10 members resigning over political differences, Ricks refused to reappoint someone to represent him on the board. And in September, he returned the ordinance calling for the special election to the Parish Council office unsigned, saying he disagreed with the council’s selection of which changes to put to a parishwide vote.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter @HeidiRKinchen.
Advocate staff writer Steve Hardy contributed to this report.