Eager to start work immediately after taking office next month, the nine newly elected members of the Livingston Parish Council have been meeting to learn more about the job and to open discussions about who will lead the board as chairman.
So far, the group has met with Parish President Layton Ricks, several administration department heads and staff members, the parish engineer, bond counsel, the deputy council clerk, the parish legal adviser, a Sheriff’s Office representative and the parish Chamber of Commerce.
Ricks said the meeting between his administration and the entirely new incoming council hopefully will lay the groundwork for a positive working relationship between the two branches of parish government — something that, by all accounts, has been missing over the past four years.
The tensions between Ricks’ administration and the council defined the fall election. Two of the three council members who decided against seeking re-election this fall cited the animosity as a reason, while most of the challengers ran on platforms that included reunifying parish government.
It was a message voters seemed to endorse, ousting the six incumbents who sought re-election by margins ranging from 16 to 38 percentage points.
“The voters didn’t just send a message to the old council,” Ricks said. “They also sent a message to the new council members and to me: You’ve got four years to do this right.”
With no incumbents and much to learn, several of the newly elected members have stressed the importance of beginning their tenure under the leadership of someone with government experience.
“With no government experience at all, you’ve got to hit the ground learning instead of trying to lead,” said Councilman-elect Garry Talbert, of the Watson-area District 2. “I would much rather have someone as chair who’s done this before. Probably there will be a lot of scrutiny on us, so we ought to at least start off with someone who would know the potholes we could possibly step in.”
That criterion points primarily to John Wascom, the incoming councilman for District 4. Having served on the Denham Springs City Council from 1995 to 1998 and from 2003 to 2014, Wascom has the most government experience of any of the newly elected Parish Council members.
The other two incoming councilmen who have served in Livingston government are Tracy Girlinghouse, a Walker city councilman since Jan. 1, 2013, and R.C. “Bubba” Harris, who served on the parish’s Police Jury from 1980 to 1988.
“I think it’s safe to say it’s leaning toward me,” Wascom said of the chairmanship. “We’ve all agreed that we want it to be unanimous, whatever the decision is. We don’t want to come in here fighting and arguing. I’ll be glad to do it, but it’s more important to me that it’s a unanimous decision. And I think it will be.”
Wascom said the meeting with Ricks and his administration in early December was helpful in getting the new council members acclimated to how parish government functions and whom they should call with issues or questions.
“Layton has just really gone out of his way to say he’s here to help,” Wascom said.
The breakfast meeting, catered by Albany High School’s culinary arts team, included directors of the parish’s finance, emergency preparedness, public works and planning departments, among others, Ricks said.
“We did talk a little about the department heads and what each does,” Ricks said. “How we’d like to see it structured, per the home rule charter, is everything coming through me and copied to the appropriate department head. My door is always open — theirs isn’t, but mine is open round the clock — and I think when issues come up, we’ll be able to work through them and move on.”
Afterward, the new council members, who will be sworn in Jan. 11, met with the council’s deputy clerk to discuss setting up their public email and cellphone accounts, to make plans to attend the Police Jury Association of Louisiana’s Jan. 13 orientation for newly elected officials and to get copies of the charter, agenda-setting and office procedures, and lists of appointed boards.
The Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce also hosted a meeting for the new council members in early December.
“The chamber brought in a spokesman from the Sheriff’s Office to talk about the relationship between the council and the detention center, how it’s full to capacity and where the funding comes from, and what direction we’ll need to take in the future to meet growing demand if the jail has to take in more people,” Wascom said. “We talked about that for several hours.”
Parish legal adviser Chris Moody, who had a schedule conflict with Ricks’ breakfast meeting, came in toward the end of the chamber-hosted function to talk to the new council members about their legal duties under the charter.
“He laid out a clear path so that we understand our roles as the legislative branch, versus Layton and his administration as the executive branch,” Wascom said. “The council members asked questions about the legalities of different things, and Chris just did a great job of clarifying things so we can move forward and work together without getting in each other’s way.”
Moody said he spent about an hour “hitting the high points” of the council members’ legal duties, ethical obligations, meeting protocol, ordinance procedures and state law requirements for the parish’s road overlay program. They also discussed the fee structure for his services, which are provided under an agreement among Moody’s firm, the 21st Judicial District Attorney’s Office and Ricks.
Moody said he discussed the state’s open meetings law, as well, which he said does not apply to the new council members until they take office.
“They were just a joy to be with,” Moody said. “Not that the old council was unpleasant to be with — they are all nice people — but it was a different atmosphere here because, almost to a man, they expressed a willingness to work with the administration. So they’re not starting out on a footing of animosity and distrust like we saw four years ago.”
Girlinghouse, the councilman-elect from Walker, said he has been encouraged by the group’s spirit of cooperation.
“I think the problem with the previous council was a lot of people really didn’t care for each other, and if you don’t, you’ll pack that into a meeting with you,” Girlinghouse said. “So far, everyone seems to have the right frame of mind in wanting to help move the parish forward. I think we’ll see some separation and some back and forth when we get to the issues — frankly, I’d be concerned if it weren’t that way — but I also think we’ll be able to find some common ground where we can concede a point for the sake of moving forward.”
Harris, the District 5 councilman-elect who previously served as a police juror, said each of the parish’s nine districts will have its own issues, but the goal of the council as a whole should be to work together to help them all.
“My goal, like I told Mr. Ricks, is to do such a great job that the news media won’t have anything bad to write about,” Harris said. “We want to keep the controversy out, and I think we’ve got a board right now, just from talking with them and being around them, who are all shooting for that.”
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