Nestled among various mundane and largely technical changes to the Parish Charter that the Jefferson Parish Council is considering putting before voters in the next few months are a measure that could make it clear that a sitting councilman’s business interests don’t disqualify him from the parish presidency and another giving the council more control over the parish’s civil service board.
Those two proposals also are two of the major deviations the council is considering from a series of amendments recommended by a Charter Review Committee last year.
Some council members have expressed reservations about both measures, and Parish President John Young has said the proposed changes to how members of the civil service board are selected could further erode the power of the parish’s already weak chief executive.
All of the amendments are set to go before the Parish Council on Wednesday. If the council signs off on them, they will be presented to voters — perhaps in December — for their approval before being enshrined in the parish’s governing document.
The changes from the original proposals by the Charter Review Committee were drafted by Alan Gandolfi, the council’s budget and research director.
They largely were designed to clarify the intent of the committee’s proposals, Councilman Chris Roberts said. Roberts said his office facilitated drafting the measures and getting input from other council members since May and that none of the final language should be a surprise.
“Alan was trying to draft them in a way where they weren’t open-ended and they were very specific, to the point where if they were challenged in court, we’d win,” Roberts said.
That, he said, was the impetus behind changing the charter committee’s recommendation on restricting the parish president’s outside income — a change that could benefit Roberts if he is elected president succeeding Young.
No such restrictions now exist. Spurred in part by scandals surrounding former Parish President Aaron Broussard, who has since been convicted on corruption charges, the Charter Review Committee recommended that parish presidents be required to work exclusively for the parish, though they could retain passive investments.
The new wording is less restrictive, specifying that the president “may receive income from business interests and from passive investments provided that the receipt of such income does not violate ethical standards under applicable federal, state or parish law.”
Clarification or change?
Roberts, seen as a major contender to replace Young when the current parish president runs for lieutenant governor next year, owns a stake in several businesses. He and his wife, Katherine Roberts, jointly own a Baskin-Robbins store in Terrytown. He also owns 25 percent of The West Bank Beacon, a monthly community newspaper, and owns stock in the Rainbow Automotive Family, which has dealerships in Harvey, Covington, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Roberts said he believes the changed language fits with the intention of the committee. The new language was requested by Roberts and approved by Roberts and Council Chairman Elton Lagasse, according to a memo explaining the changes drafted by Gandolfi.
“I was assured it wasn’t a change,” Roberts said. “It’s a clarification of language to make sure it was very clear as to what it meant — that if you had interests in a business you wouldn’t be disqualified for that office.”
Roberts also said that were he to become parish president, that would be his only job. He contrasted that with Broussard, who did work as an attorney during business hours. “If I were to run for parish president, my employed position would be the position I was elected to,” he said.
Lagasse, a frequent ally of Roberts, argued that investments should not bar a candidate from the parish presidency and that the job’s $143,000 annual salary could be tough for a family to live on. He also said having business experience could be key for the parish’s chief executive and that restrictions on outside income could narrow the field of candidates.
“I think we eliminate some good people from even running,” Lagasse said. “A guy that’s got passive businesses that have nothing to do with the parish, he’s not going to divorce himself (from them) to be parish president.”
But Councilman Ben Zahn, who has frequently clashed with Roberts, said he was concerned about loosening the restrictions.
“I think we should keep like the charter amendment says, where it can only be passive employment. We’ve seen what can happen when you have active employment by the parish president,” said Zahn, who added that he would continue to talk with his colleagues about the issue.
Who should appoint board?
More controversy surrounds a charter change that would give the Parish Council, rather than the president, the ability to appoint members to the board — now known as the Personnel Board, though that would change — that oversees the civil service rules, salary plans and job classifications for parish workers.
The Charter Review Committee recommended some changes to that board, such as expanding its membership from three to five, but retained the parish president’s ability to choose who serves on it. Four of the members would come from lists recommended to the president by the heads of local universities; the parish president would be able to appoint one member on his own, with the approval of the council.
The draft of the charter changes before the Parish Council, however, gives the council itself the power to make those appointments, giving the council more control over the rules governing people working in the executive branch. The appointees would all come from lists put forward by the heads of local universities.
The recommendation for the change came from the Personnel Board itself, according to Gandolfi’s memo.
Young said letting the Parish Council name the members creates an issue with the separation of powers in a parish where the council already has far more power than the executive. He said the president should be the one who has a say in how his administration runs, seeing that he’s the one charged with keeping it working.
“At the end of the day, the parish president’s the one that has to be answering for it,” Young said. “He should have the authority.”
A letter from the administration to the Parish Council made similar points.
“Removing the parish president’s ability to appoint members to the Personnel Board encroaches on his mandated duty to administer and supervise all parish departments, offices, agencies and special districts by stripping his ability to appoint members to the board that determines the rules by which his employees must abide,” Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Van Vrancken-Dwyer wrote to the council.
Lagasse, however, said the parish’s “strong council” form of government means council members should have authority over the board.
Councilman Paul Johnston said he’s still reviewing the new version of the language and discussing the issue with his colleagues. But he said he wasn’t particularly happy with the deviations from the original recommendations made by the committee.
“We had a lot of input from citizens and groups. I had no problem with it,” Johnston said. “When the new version came out last week, they had a few changes I don’t think I’m in favor of.”
Restricting hospital proceeds
Another change not included in the original recommendations, but not expected to generate debate, deals with the proposed leasing of West Jefferson Medical Center and East Jefferson General Hospital, an issue that was not being publicly discussed at the time the Charter Review Committee made its recommendations.
Under the proposed amendment, the parish would have to put any money received from hospital leases in a special fund. The parish could not spend the fund’s principal, though it could spend up to 80 percent of the interest the fund generates each year. That money would have to be spent in accordance with the purposes for which the two public hospitals were originally founded.
That provision squares with promises council members and members of the hospitals’ boards have made about how they would spend — or not spend — the proceeds of the leases. Reserving the money the parish receives would ensure there is cash available should the parish decide someday to retake direct control of the facilities, and spending only part of the interest would allow that principal to keep up with inflation.
The need to draft language dealing with that issue is one of the reasons the charter changes are only just now coming before the council, Roberts said.
The council is working under something of a deadline on the issue. It needs to approve the proposed changes at Wednesday’s meeting if it wants to get them on the December ballot. Because a general election already is scheduled at that time, the parish would have to bear only part of the costs of the election.
If the changes are not approved this week, the next time they could be presented to the voters would be in March. Because the propositions would be the only items on that ballot, the parish would be on the hook for the entire cost of the election, about $300,000.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.