ST. FRANCISVILLE — After this fall’s election, the West Feliciana Parish Council will change from seven representative districts to four districts and one at-large seat.
Like a game of musical chairs, the switch mandated by the parish’s homerule charter has created some interesting matchups heading into the election. The seven seats are a remnant of the Police Jury, which over the past two years has made the move to a Parish Council as the legislative branch and a parish president as the executive.
The path has been bumpy with repeated, unsuccessful attempts to throw out the charter. Incumbent Councilman Ricky Lambert has decided to run for parish president, and Councilwoman Lea Williams chose not to run. But five incumbents are in the race.
The newly created at-large seat was a walkover for Democrat Sidney Picou-Walker, who didn’t face any opposition. Picou-Walker, an attorney, lost a 2014 election for a 20th Judicial Court District A judgeship to Betsy Jones by 13 votes. She previously served as Police Jury president from 1987 through 1991, and she predicts three major issues will face the new council.
“The settlement of the Lambert lawsuit without further litigation; working within the four corners of the charter and making any changes to make it work more efficiently; and making certain that our zoning ordinances are up to date and applied equally to all persons and businesses,” Picou-Walker said.
The lawsuit between the heirs and family of Paul Lambert Sr. and the parish over disputed property at the Mississippi River front has been lingering for more than two years and has cost the parish more than $700,000. The council voted in June to appeal the judgment.
Almost all of the races will be decided at the Oct. 24 election, although the District B contest could head to the Nov. 21 runoff if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote.
In District A, incumbent Democrat Melvin Young faces challenger Cheryl Franklin, also a Democrat. Young is completing his first term and says the biggest challenges facing the council are related to improving infrastructure such as roads, sewer systems and clean water.
“Another big challenge for the parish is to try to help stop wasteful spending and boost funding for projects that would bring more jobs and businesses to the parish,” Young said.
Franklin is vice president of the parish Hospital Board of Commissioners, where she’s served for eight years. She said the incoming council faces a number of issues, including how to attract businesses, make infrastructure improvements and get people involved in district issues.
“Although the challenges will be present, they can be overcome if the council sets goals and priorities that are within their means,” Franklin said. “The biggest challenge that I see for my district is regaining the trust of the public because of the broken promises that they have received for the last eight years.”
In District B, two incumbent councilmen, Democrats Otis Wilson and John Kean, are facing each other along with a political newcomer, Republican John C. Thompson.
Wilson has served on the Police Jury and council for 18 years, and he said the biggest issues are related to growth with more jobs that pay better than entry-level wages and more affordable housing that will keep young people in the parish.
“The council itself needs to work together for everybody, for the good of the whole parish and all people,” Wilson said. “It needs to try to open doors that are closed to the people and make things happen for the good of the parish.”
Thompson said he does not see challenges facing the council; he sees opportunities.
“I see an opportunity to remove the spirit of division from our council. I see an opportunity to help bring about a spirit of unity. I see an opportunity to join together, work together and grow together,” said Thompson, who said the focus should be attracting new businesses, industry, jobs and people to the parish. “Now is the time to seize the opportunity to move West Feliciana forward.”
Kean did not respond to repeated attempts to comment for this story.
In District C, incumbent Councilman Mel Percy, a Republican, faces challenger Mary Daniel-Godke, who lists no party affiliation.
Percy is completing his first term and has been a proponent of the charter since its implementation. He says he understands there are flaws in the document as written but adds it can be fixed.
“We have to educate the people on the (home rule charter),” Percy said. “Amendments are necessary for the HRC to work better for the parish. I’ve worked under the police jury and the HRC, and we’re a hundred times better off under the HRC. For example, I don’t think everything needs to be an ordinance; some things can be handled as resolutions. But expenditures should still receive the scrutiny of an ordinance.”
Daniel-Godke, who has served four years on the Planning and Zoning Commission, including one as chairman, said political gridlock and in-fighting have had a negative effect on parish governance. She said the democratic process should always be respected, and clear rules and procedures must be consistently followed to ensure fairness and transparency.
“The first, most fundamental and greatest challenge that the new government must face is restoration, restructuring and renewed respect for the political process,” Daniel-Godke said. “I believe that the democratic process should always be respected as we prepare to address any controversial issues that will ultimately determine the future of our Parish.”
In District D, two candidates with no party affiliation are vying for the seat. Two candidates who qualified last month, Zephie Marionneaux and Steve McKinney, have dropped out.
One-term incumbent Heather Howle, who is the current chairman of the council, believes aging infrastructure issues, particularly roads and bridges, are a top priority. She wants to see issues related to brown water resolved as well as high-speed Internet access for areas in the parish with none.
“Our parish roads, bridges, water system and Internet service need updating and expansion in order to keep and attract residents and businesses,” Howle said. “This can only be accomplished if we put politics aside and work together to prioritize key infrastructure improvement projects and pursue targeted funding sources.”
Political newcomer William “Bill” May, is challenging Howle. He said the council’s top priorities are to resolve the Lambert lawsuit, attract new houses and small businesses to increase the parish’s tax base and make improvements to the parish’s infrastructure.
“As for the home rule charter, we have to get a true council in place and they can see what amendments need to be made to it,” May said.